The Empathy Gap: When “Been There, Done That” is not Enough

As someone who has been told several times she is too empathetic to survive in this harsh world, I assumed I knew a lot about empathy. I never pretended to know how to kindle it in others, but I rarely had difficulty placing myself in even the most unusual positions to investigate all sides of an issue. While this tendency to favour the empathetic response is often involuntary and sometimes overwhelming, I always viewed it as a net positive. Surely, by being such an effortlessly empathetic soul—if not an effortlessly kind one—I must be adept at feeling and demonstrating compassion for others, especially when I’ve walked in similar shoes. Since I’m privileged to be trusted with so many personal stories of struggle, my well-ingrained empathetic response was one of the few traits about which I was fully confident.
Like so many of my long-held and cherished assumptions, I ran into compelling evidence that I was wrong. What is more, I should not have needed a formal study on the empathy gap to convince me; my own negative experiences with the disability community should have been sufficient. According to the authors of this study, the common belief that walking in someone else’s shoes ought to inspire compassion and even leniency is statistically inaccurate. This might not feel true at first, but the more I pondered it, the more sense it made.
Take this example from a few years ago, when I was beginning to find my place in the disability community: An acquaintance, who lived with physical and mental disabilities, was finally able to obtain permanent, fulfilling employment. I expected he would dedicate some of his emotional resources to encouraging others who had not yet reached that goal, or at least affirm that the struggle is, in fact, real. Within months of his triumph, however, he was already cutting fellow disabled people down, suggesting that aspiring workers should simply try harder, and campaigning to cut benefits meant to help those aspiring workers survive while they continued their job searches. The years he had spent searching for his own job, the discrimination he had battled, the pain he had suffered—he had either forgotten them altogether, minimized their power, or attributed his success to superior mettle. Whatever the reason, I drew away from him in shock and disappointment, unable to believe someone could be so hypocritical and heartless.
The idealist in me is loath to admit it, but his response wasn’t just statistically normal. His response, extreme though it was, is one I see in most people I know, including my oh-so-empathetic self. I’m working to exercise compassion and empathy more consciously and intentionally, but I still catch myself dismissing or minimizing someone else’s experiences on the bogus basis that I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I’m on the other side of it or, at least, I’ve learned to shoulder it. Meanwhile, the nondisabled people I know are more likely to listen attentively and judge less readily, because they have not worn those shoes and do not feel qualified to do more than be supportive. You will find far too many people, disabled and nondisabled, who are quick to judge a situation even and especially when they have no knowledge of it, but most people know when they’re out of their depth, and won’t pretend otherwise.
Now that I’ve been a multiply-disabled person for decades, and worked in a disability-adjacent field for a few years, I am forced to confront the reality that lived experiences don’t automatically result in increased compassion and empathy. In fact, disabled people and those close to them tend to err on the side of harshness, reasoning that they or someone they know managed to “overcome,” which means they have little or no sympathy for anyone who is less successful. There’s a well-worn joke in the disability employment field about how case managers with disabilities are the toughest, and for the most part it checks out. Disabled case managers, and those with disabled family members or friends, may have more knowledge and may make fewer generalizations on average, but they are also likely to say something like “I was able to do this, so why can’t you?” When I wrote about my fear of blind people, this is the core of what I was describing: nondisabled people typically take me at face value after a while, but disabled people often seem to be sizing me up. In an ugly and ironic twist, I have caught myself sizing up my clients in precisely the same way.
As is my custom, I thought about calls to action before sitting down to write this post. I dislike bringing up an issue without pointing toward potential solutions, and this is no exception. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much direct action to be taken against the empathy gap, besides acknowledging it exists and fighting the instinct to judge, give unsolicited advice, or condemn when we encounter someone who is wearing shoes very like our own.
When you feel empathy, ask yourself the hard questions: Is this a pure feeling? Am I using my past experiences to offer guidance and validation? Is the advice I’m giving, the story I’m telling, the wisdom I’m dispensing welcome? Solicited? Needed? Useful? Am I sharing understanding, or centreing myself? Do I have any right to speak to this situation at all, or am I talking when I ought to be listening?
I’ll close with insightful advice from the authors of the study I referenced earlier. According to Ruttan, McDonnel, and Nordgren, it’s best to get out of your own head, place less emphasis on your individual experiences, and focus on the situation in front of you. If it helps, think of all the many people in the world struggling with the same burdens, instead of zeroing in on your personal journey.
Armed with this knowledge and these strategies, I hope we can all put our empathy to good use, and grow into a more supportive, less judgmental community. Come join me!

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When It Happens To You…

It happened on a bus. I was sitting near my boyfriend, who is not fully sighted but whose vision loss is not noticeable to the average passers-by. An older woman began talking to him, and my mind drifted a little. I was jolted back to earth, though, when I heard her say, quite sweetly, that it was “so nice of [him]to take care of [me].”
There it was.
I knew it would happen sometime, I really did. I’d heard so many stories from other blind people who had sighted partners. I’ve commiserated with them, thinking I knew how it felt because people had made abstract statements of that kind to me. I’ve basically heard it all: you need a husband so he can take care of you; you can’t raise kids or manage daily life without a man; you need to choose a sighted partner so he can keep you safe–and on and on.
It turns out that I was wrong about one crucial element: an abstract statement, no matter how offensive, is far less upsetting than a well-meant but deeply personal one–and it wasn’t even directed at me!
I tried to break it down. After all, I knew this was coming. My previous partner had been totally blind, so we never encountered this situation, but as soon as I began dating my current boyfriend, I expected it. So if I knew it would happen, and had helped so many others bounce back after it happened to them, why couldn’t I anticipate exactly how much it would hurt?
In the end, besides the fact that I am an independent person who takes care of people as often as they care for me, the tone and style of her words were my undoing. This woman thought she was being kind. She simply wanted to commend this nice young man for what she considered exceptional strength of character. Her intentions were pure and I’m certain she did not understand that it might be the wrong thing to say–let alone harmful to the girl in question. I know all this, and yet…
I think it comes down to feeling like an object. The conversation did not include me, strictly speaking. I was not being spoken to, but about. This woman’s casual praise concerned me at least as much as it concerned him, but I don’t believe I was really meant to participate at all except to agree emphatically and gaze at him adoringly for the next few minutes. I was merely the tangible, living example of my partner’s essential goodness and compassion.
Now, he really is a wonderful human being, and sometimes having a blind girlfriend does involve offering a little extra assistance. We travel using sighted guide, for example. Other than a few relatively minor adjustments, we function as any other couple would. My blindness isn’t usually on my mind, and I doubt it’s on his either.
I know this–know it down to my bones–but I still feel insecure, hurt, and embarrassed when someone assumes otherwise. I found this particular incident so unsettling that it took me a few minutes to calm down fully, and I regret to say that I did not respond to her comment with as much grace as I should have. True, I tempered my “I take care of me–he really doesn’t…” with a smile, but I don’t know how effective my attempts to cover my shock and indignation really were.
So, okay, it was a difficult experience. It was humbling, because I thought I could handle such a thing with minimal effort. I believed I was near-impervious to this sort of thing, only because so many fellow disabled people had dealt with it first. What’s the big deal?
Ultimately, this is my takeaway: you cannot know how something will feel until you go through it. Guide dog handlers might be sure of their reaction when they experience their first access refusal, hoping their conviction that it’s wrong will carry them past anger or humiliation. Disabled people who are denied a job based on discrimination can’t know just how painful and frustrating it will be before it actually happens. A student cannot predict their emotional response to being barred from a course because they are deemed unemployable and unteachable until the moment it occurs. I know this, because I’ve been through the last two examples and witnessed numerous people go through the first. My experiences mesh with theirs: it’s easy to empathize; it’s much harder to deal with these situations when they’re directed at you, and only you.
So what can I do? What can we all do?
First off, we can avoid assuming we have such a firm handle on our emotions. We can choose not to claim we know how we will feel until we find out the hard way. We can definitely prepare for the eventuality, and do our best to steel ourselves against what we know we’ll face at some point. Even as we do this, we must be mindful that all that preparation might fly out the window when we need it most.
The more important step is to support other disabled people even more wholeheartedly than we have before. It is not enough to stand by and comfort them. We must avoid minimizing their feelings or pretending we can know what they’re struggling with if we genuinely do not. It may seem like we understand a situation intimately, but there’s just no replacement for first-hand experience.
Going forward, I’ll apply the lessons I learned from this encounter, while continuing to embrace the compassionate view I’ve tried to nurture all along. At the end of the day, I know I must not forget that this sweet woman’s only goal was to praise what she considered to be a small pocket of good in an increasingly dark landscape. She actually went on to say that we made a good couple. She wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, and while I know her viewpoint is wrong and even unhealthy, I can’t change it, not for now. All I can do is move on, let it go, and practice resilience. I hope that, next time it happens, I’ll be ready.

“Why Are You So Angry?”

Almost every person who so much as encourages advocacy will face this question at some point, and while I don’t get it often (my writing style isn’t what you’d call vitriolic), I have been asked this multiple times. “Sure, you deal with a lot,” they say, “but do you really need to be so pissed off about it? Do you really need to write a whole blog whose purpose is to complain, and point out all that’s wrong with the world?” My answer to this is always the same: “Huh?”

I’m not an angry person. I like my life, even when it’s difficult, and I have great faith in the idea that human beings are capable of kindness and enlightenment. I spend most of my time just being Meagan, and the rest is usually spent trying to educate, not lay blame or spew hatred at the world at large. Yes, I do go on about what’s wrong with society. Yes, I do sometimes vent my frustration on a public forum. Yes, I get angry sometimes.

Do I spend my life in a state of perpetual fury? Do I direct hostility toward the sighted population? Do I focus more on being a malcontent than on trying to make the world that little bit better? Nope. I’d much rather bring positivity into this world than anything else, even as I’m being direct and unyielding concerning my rights as a human being.

 

I must confess that I’m shocked at the public’s expectation that we should be virtuous angels, patiently awaiting the day when the world will give a damn about the injustice that is built into society’s very structure. I am amazed that people are surprised when we object to systemic discrimination and harmful stereotyping. I mean, would they shoulder these things with unwavering grace? I don’t think so. That said, do we have the right to reject all efforts to reach out to us? I think not.

 

I did not create my blog with the intention of using it as a source of fatalistic ranting. I set out to maintain a safe space where ideas could be shared, questions could be answered, and advice could be dispensed. I’ve always kept one goal in mind: how can I foster empathy and understanding? How can I describe what my life is like, and how can I use that insight to help others?

I’d like to believe that regular readers realize I’m prone to seeing the good in the world. I hope they have noticed my tendency to right wrongs and offer solutions rather than condemn specific individuals and the mistakes they make. I hope, most of all, that I make my readers feel inspired, not hopeless, and determined, not angry. I resent those disabled people whose sole purpose appears to be making “normal” people miserable. I don’t expect them to maintain a sweet disposition when they’ve been fielding the same ignorant questions and withstanding the same discrimination for years on end. It’s acceptable to indulge anger; it can be a powerful tool if it’s used correctly.

That, of course, is the key: one must use anger judiciously. There’s enough rage-fuel online without worsening the problem. It wastes time and energy we could be devoting to initiatives that improve our lives. Accessibility and inclusiveness benefit us all, whether we’re disabled or not. We can all share in the fruits of disabled people’s labour. We can all read and write blogs like this one. If we get a bit angry sometimes? Well, I’d say that’s human, wouldn’t you?