I am uncomfortable with the fact that society teaches us to pity those who we believe to be less fortunate than we are rather than to empathize with them. Pity implies an imagined sense of superiority over the other, so that we end up looking at an individual who was born without sight, for instance, and who has lived that way all their lives as having a less complete existence than a sighted person. I instinctively feel that this is wrong. But it’s far easier to recognize this wrong than it is to change it.
Every aspect of my life is touched by my ability to see. Even the way I dream, think and imagine is directly related to my ability to register and to respond to colors and shapes. I cannot even begin to imagine how I would map the streets of my town, and the insides of buildings and gardens, relying on my senses of smell, hearing and touch to do so. All the same, I can’t help feeling that my blind friend sees my perception of the world as a completely alien experience.
Many people like to imagine that given the chance to reverse a disability such as blindness, anyone would grasp at the chance. I wonder about that. After all, it is very difficult, even traumatizing to have to adjust to unfamiliar stimuli, loud and unfamiliar shapes and colors, at an advanced age. One’s eyes have never learnt to judge distances, or even to perceive depth. The brain has long developed without input from the visual organs. Wouldn’t learning how to see at this point be a very difficult experience? This thought makes me realize that there’s much more to our senses than we understand.
If we care enough to listen, look and appreciate, we will realize that there is much more to an individual’s experience of life than that which draws our pity. Pity is unfortunate. It does not bring us closer to understanding each other. Rather, it highlights our differences, and pushes us apart. Instead of pity, I propose empathy. How about talking to people, and learning what challenges and joys they experience daily? How about finding out from them how exactly their quality of life and their ability to support themselves can be improved rather than imagining that we know the solutions to their predicaments? And instead of seeing our own experiences as the norm, the standard by which other people’s lives should be judged, how about seeing other people’s lives as legitimate and dignified experiences from which we can learn?
In saying all this, I am aware that the state of affairs in several countries globally is complicated: Educational facilities for people with various disabilities are limited. Employment is often hard to come by, and access to wheelchairs, hearing aids, and other devices that would make a drastic difference, is limited by financial considerations. As if these are not bad enough, ignorance often reigns, leading many to view disability as a curse, and to shun the disabled and stigmatize them. Fortunately, some countries have set precedents by creating legislation to level the playing field, so to speak. But these have often come only after long ‘battles’ bravely fought.
First published in TakingITGlobal's Panorama Zine
on 31st January, 2006.