In Praise of Those Who Share Their Wheels

Where I grew up, a five-minute drive (an hour’s walk) would take me to school, a post office, the nearest convenience store. Forty-five minutes in a car would get me to music lessons, assuming the weather cooperated. Two hours got me to the nearest city, where decent shopping could be found. Four hours got me all the way to Edmonton, for music competitions and specialized medical care. To get anywhere of consequence, I needed more than my two legs, and my legs were all I had.

Part and parcel of being a kid in a rural area was asking for rides—to the store, to extracurricular activities, to friends’ houses, to school, even, if you managed to miss the bus. We were all used to it, and all our parents were used to the asking. Many childhood memories involve being driven everywhere, through rain and snow and parental exhaustion. It was annoying to be so dependent, but we were all similarly needy, so it never chafed too badly.

Then, all around me, my friends and relatives began turning sixteen and getting their licences. Driving fever hit, and suddenly everyone was blasting forbidden music at top volume, speeding around in second-hand vehicles, thrilled with their new freedom. For the first time, getting where they needed to go was a matter of grabbing their keys and promising they’d be home by eleven.

Everyone but me, that is.

At sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, I was still hitching rides, especially when out of reach of a cab or bus. Visiting my family during the holidays meant convincing some kind soul to ferry me home. Getting to the hospital when I was too weak to rely on a cab driver meant calling everyone I could at inconvenient hours, asking the dreaded question through tears. Socializing with friends who lived on the outskirts of the city meant expecting them to drive half an hour out of their way, much of it through downtown traffic, for the dubious privilege of seeing me. My life, as a twenty-three-year-old urban dweller, is still influenced by my inability to drive. Asking for someone else’s wheels never gets easier, though it is routine and inevitable.

I could go on at some length about the ways being unable to drive makes life harder, more precarious, more difficult to plan, less convenient, less independent. Today, I’d rather focus on the people who answer yes, over and over. I want to honour the relatives, friends, and acquaintances who have driven in all weathers, at all hours, for all reasons. I want to highlight the kind stranger who, discovering me lost and bedraggled during a storm, drove me to my house without any thought of recompense. They have performed this service whether they felt like doing so or not. They have done so without expecting a return on their investment of time and gas money. They have done it, if not always without complaint, then with generosity. The music lessons and emergency medical appointments and shopping trips and singing engagements and social visits have all meant the world to me, and I owe that joy to the people who transported me there.

When someone asks for a ride because they have exhausted all other options, you know they desperately need it. You know it will improve their lives in ways large and small. You know that it is not usually easy for them to ask.

If you’ve been a frequent driver for others, know that you are valued, and needed, and appreciated. We may not always tell you so, but it’s no less true.

It’s easier than ever to travel without a vehicle, but there will probably always be a need for a kind soul with a car.

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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!

It’s The Little Things

So often, it’s the little things that spark my frustration. True, the broad, sweeping issues matter more in the grand scheme, but the minor, day-to-day irritations eat at me the most. Instructions I can’t read, inaccessible features of a website, people asking rude questions–these annoyances burrow beneath my skin and make me curse my disability (or, more accurately, the way the world treats that disability).
There’s another side to this, however. Just as I’m most ruffled by the tiniest details, so too am I cheered by equally inconsequential things. A door opened at just the right time, a person taking the time to describe an image, information provided in an alternate format—these are the gestures and accommodations that remind me the world is not falling apart. No matter how hopeless I feel, how acute my frustration, how black my outlook, there will always be some mundane occurrence or other to soothe my spirit, at least for a while.
My fundamental mistake, I think, is failing to acknowledge these happenings and give myself the space to be grateful. It’s easy to express gratitude for the landmark victories and grand gestures, but I’m less likely to stop what I’m doing and spend a moment simply appreciating the good that’s quietly and often anonymously done in the world each day.
My regular readers know just how averse I am to trumpeting positive mantras and ignoring uncomfortable truths. Disability advocacy is still sorely needed. The world has a long, long way to go before the personhood and humanity of people with disabilities is fully recognized and integrated into society’s structure. So many great leaps have yet to be taken, and there are a thousand battles left to fight. I’m aware of this, and so are fellow disabled people.
Yet, for my own well-being, I’m compelled to devote more energy to revelling in the simple kindness and thoughtfulness of others. Thanking a developer for prioritizing accessibility is, for now at least, just as important as calling another out for failing to do so. Writing social media posts about kindness, generosity, and hope should be as habitual as writing about injustice and prejudice. Venting my frustration is necessary, but expressing gratitude is necessary, too.
Even as we tell others how they have done wrong, we ought to tell them how they have done right. They may not listen or even care, but if we don’t give people the tools to improve, they never will. If we censure fellow disabled people, we must also build them up, for we all walk the same path.
I won’t close my eyes and make believe that the good outweighs the bad. I won’t ask anyone else to do that, either. Keep calling out what’s wrong in the world; your voice is vital, and if we do not speak, no one else will do so for us. In your own life, though, among those you come into direct contact with, focus on the good, as well. If a stranger does something you like, tell them so. If a disabled peer does something of which you approve, let them know.
Yes, we need to be watchful. We mustn’t become complacent and hide in a cocoon of warm, fuzzy feelings. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t benefit from a few moments of happiness now and then, though.
So, take a moment. Think of the last time someone understood you, or supported you, or treated you the way you want to be treated. Reach back to that point—I hope it wasn’t too long ago—and remember how it made you feel.
Don’t forget.
It truly is the little things…

The Unconscious Cultivation Of Defensiveness

Disabled people have often been (unjustly) accused of being perpetually offended. We seem to be screaming about some atrocity or other with regularity: words like “discrimination,” “bigotry,” and “injustice” flow freely from our lips. Most of the time, able people’s unwillingness to understand our anger drives me mad. If they spent even a single day in our shoes, they might change their tune. No matter how often we explain why our passion is warranted, there will always be some able people who refuse to listen. But … (I do love buts, don’t I?)

I’m becoming more aware of our unconscious, unintentional cultivation of defensiveness. We mistake simple kindness for condescension, barriers for willful discrimination, and ignorance for deliberate refusal to change. Often, our suspicions are proven accurate—indeed, we are so often proven right that it’s understandable that we’d jump to conclusions. I can’t help but worry, however, that we are jumping the gun.

This issue was brought to my attention when I read a blind person’s rant about a flight attendant who did not want to charge him for a drink. His assumption was that the free drink was offered out of pity, as though the only reason to be kind to us is to express a desire to improve our tragic lives. To my surprise, this assumption did not remain unchallenged. The vast majority of those who responded cautioned him against narrow-mindedness, even advising him to simply accept the gesture and move on. While I can identify with his instinctive defensiveness, and acknowledge that I’m guilty of the same, I think we should all examine our biases very carefully. The free Slurpee I was provided with at a convenience store may have been given out of a genuine wish to make a girl’s day, but the reaction, even from family, demonstrated that disabled people and those close to them always suspect random acts of kindness to be a direct result of blindness. When I announced that I’d been given a free drink, I got the following response.
“Maybe it’s because he was feeling generous tonight.”
“Nah,” said someone else, “it’s because you’re blind, I’m sure.”
Able people’s tendency to attach unnecessary meaning to disability can be shocking. I was insulted when a student, after discovering that a professor often praised my work, remarked that his favour was based solely on blindness. (It may have had something to do with her own poor performance in the class, but I’ll never know for sure).

The thing is, similar acts of kindness are directed at perfectly able people, and they do no more than I have to earn them. If you stand in a crowded pub long enough, some stranger will buy you a drink as often as not. If the Slurpee machines are about to be cleaned and refilled anyway, you’ll probably get a free one. If someone sees you from across a restaurant and is feeling magnanimous, they might send a free dessert over to your table. These actions are not, and should not be, linked with pity or condescension. Sometimes, humans just feel like being nice.

If you receive a free drink, try to take it with grace if you can. If someone pays for your coffee, interpret it as an attempt to make your Monday morning better until you see evidence to the contrary. If you are not chosen for a job, don’t immediately blame blindness—it’s possible you simply were not the most qualified candidate.

Don’t get me wrong: I realize that, in the majority of cases, blaming blindness is justified. I and other disabled people have been through too much, and faced too much blatant mistreatment, to be crucified for viewing disability as the culprit in most cases. That said, it’s worth stepping back and asking ourselves whether we’ve become too accustomed to defensiveness. We may not mean harm, but perhaps we’d be better served by approaching life with a bit more thought and a little less passion.

“May I Pray For You?”

“Excuse me …”
“Yes?”
“What’s your name?”
“Meagan…any reason you ask?”
“Yes. Meagan, would it be okay if I prayed for you?”
“Why…”
“Well, I’d like to ask Jesus if He might help you with your eyes.”
“Ah.”

This one. It happens to most of us at one time or another. I admit that I’ve heard about it plenty of times, but didn’t experience it myself until I was eighteen or so. I hear all kinds of derisive comments about the situation, even from religious blind people. They hate pity as much as I do, and they consider the prayers insulting, or at least misguided.

I tend to react differently, and I must say that my approach is very unpopular. No, I’m not wild about the idea of people asking God to fix me. I wager that He would cure me (or not) with or without entreaties from strangers. I fight the good fight where negative stereotypes are concerned—you all know this, dearest readers—and I discourage pity as often as possible. And yet …

There is something so earnest and genuine about these offers of prayer. The requests might be misguided, yes. The desire to see us cured is misplaced, certainly. In many cases, we’re at peace with our lives as they are, and a cure is potentially frightening to many of us. So no, I don’t actively encourage anyone, stranger or otherwise, to pray for or even wish for a cure.

On the very few occasions when someone goes out of their way to ask if they can pray for me, I do my best to respond with grace. I respect and appreciate their openhearted compassion, even if I wish there wasn’t a need for it in the first place. I know in my heart that they have the purest intentions, at least most of the time. And, while I generally take issue with the “good intentions” card, there are, in my mind at least, exceptions. Will my life change in any way if a stranger goes home and prays for me? I suspect not. Will it hurt me, though? I don’t see how. Will I gain anything by berating them for even asking? No. Will I further my own cause by being harsh with them? Definitely not.

I’m at a point now where I decline these offers of prayer as graciously as I can. I spend too much time battling the idea that we’re just waiting for someone—anyone—to “make the blind to see” as it is. Still … I have to celebrate the goodwill of these people. Society is apathetic and individualistic to such a degree that these small kindnesses, however I might feel about them, remain special to me.

If you must pray, then pray for me, by all means. I ask, though, that you pray for my well-being. Pray that my various issues remain manageable. Pray that I continue to cross paths with fortune.

Don’t pray for the blind girl. Pray for the girl.

Don’t Just Stand There: On the Disturbing Nature of “Rubbernecking”

This morning, I was reading an article about a legally blind woman who strayed off of a snow-filled sidewalk and into the street, just missing a guard rail that would have kept her on the correct path. She must have slipped and fallen, because she was seen on her hands and knees in the street while cars zoomed by, honking furiously. Evidently, people were taking the time to honk and curse with frustration—not to mention stare at her—but no one seemed to be interested in actually helping her. Finally, a city official noticed her, changed lanes, and offered her his help. I came away with a sour taste in my mouth: I am continually dismayed by people’s ability to gawk openly at someone in distress and fail to help them. Surely if you have time to stare at someone, you have time to help them!

I recognize that if a situation is horrifying or confusing enough, people might not know how to react and will therefore remain frozen with indecision and/or shock. This article, by itself, might be dismissed on the grounds that we weren’t there and we can’t know exactly what people were thinking when they passed this poor woman by. But…

I find it harder and harder to dismiss stories like this, because they crop up often enough to suggest a pattern. As I’ve mentioned before, people are prepared to treat me like a spectacle, but not often willing to actually help me in any way. This proves true for many disabled people of all types; people see us, but they don’t necessarily interact with us the way they would with anyone else. It’s almost like the oft-quoted “it’s like a train wreck…I can’t look away” scenario with a slightly twisted edge. How can otherwise perfectly decent human beings be aware that a person is in need and refuse to lift a finger?

It’s a complicated issue—one which my family and friends have occasionally discussed with me. They claim that, since knowing me, they are far more willing to offer help to disabled strangers, and far less able to stand by and watch those strangers struggle. Indeed, an old acquaintance once told me of a young blind woman struggling to navigate an unfamiliar restaurant. She was having difficulty locating a seat, and was becoming visibly upset. According to this acquaintance of mine, several men in business attire were sitting around watching her, some of them actually daring to laugh a little at her confusion. He was astonished that they’d have the gall to notice her predicament enough to find humour in it, and still refuse to ask her if she needed any help. It reminded him, he said, of cruel children on a playground. Unable to stand by and watch, he rushed over to assist her. He later confessed that knowing and caring about me probably spurred his desire to get involved, and heightened his sense of justice.

The more we see this twisted style of rubbernecking, the more it becomes normalized and, by extension, tolerable. Whether you are disabled or not, you’ve likely been in situations where you could have used some help but were completely ignored by those around you, even though they could all see your plight. I have always asserted that having a disability gifted me with a strong sense of compassion, and I find it heart-rending to bear witness to another’s need without at least considering stepping forward.

Don’t misunderstand me: this does not give a person license to approach any and all disabled people and immediately begin forcefully thrusting help upon them, whether it’s wanted or unwanted. It does mean, though, that we could all be a little better about offering that assistance, and being willing to give it if it’s solicited. This goes for disabled and able alike, by the way. We’re all human, after all, and most of us will require a stranger’s kindness at some point in our lives. That paying it forward thing? Yeah, that’s pretty cool, even if you never get it back.

I understand the helpless, frozen feeling associated with witnessing someone else in danger or need; I’ve even written about a time where I allowed this sensation to paralyze me completely. In my mind, though, there’s a great deal of difference between wanting to help but not being sure how, and sniggering with derision as you gawk away. C’mon, guys; we can do better. I have seen over and over that we are capable of great kindness. Let’s see more of that, okay?