We’ve all heard the saying, usually as an admonition, that before we judge someone we should understand their experiences, circumstances etc. It is a direct appeal for us to empathise with our fellow human beings yet how often do we act accordingly? How blinkered are we when it comes to the awkwardness of awareness especially when it comes to someone with a disability?
I had glimpse of what this means in the recent mundane activity of catching the London underground. Now, regular readers will know that for me, travelling by any sort of train is a challenge.
Awareness Brought Home- when temporarily incapacitated
I was recently travelling with a broken foot duly immobilised by plaster and strapping, leaning heavily on a walking stick, walking slowly and being in a not inconsiderable amount of pain. I had stations, escalators, over-ground trains, distances, under-ground trains, steps and pavements to negotiate carefully around.
I was about to receive a lesson in how self-absorbed, selfish and downright rude people seem to have become especially towards anyone with a disability. There was no sign that the Paralympics had made much of a difference to people’s attitude or their disability awareness on this particular day.
I was jostled and pushed out of the way trying to board the busy commuter train because I couldn’t move as fast as everyone else and was struggling to step up into the train. I was tutted at as I tried to find a seat as I couldn’t avoid bumping people as trying to keep a straight steady line in the tiny train aisle was impossible.
There were able bodied people in the priority seats who avoided eye contact with me and made no attempt to give their seat up so that I wouldn’t have to stand for the entire journey balanced on one foot. One middle-aged gentleman came to my rescue by giving up his non-priority seat in the end but that is one person in an entire carriage who had just watched me hobble my way down it!
Disability awareness from a corporate perspective
On the underground I had never before realised how many flights of stairs there are at the stations. Each one I had to psyche myself up for, try to find room to grab the handrail and slowly ascend grunting with the effort, all the while people scowling at me as they had to deviate around me. In fact, on the entire trip not one person smiled or cast me a friendly look, most sort of skittered their eyes across me without actually seeing me and then pointedly looked in any other direction than in mine. I have never felt so small, invisible and such an inconvenience in my life before. When I got home I was so exhausted and disappointed in humanity I promptly went to sleep to recover. Not only that, it saddens me to think how for many people, my one-off struggle is a daily occurrence.
The underground is allegedly one of the most effective ways to get around London and, yet, it must be nigh on impossible for many to use if they have any sort of disability. I now understand what my friend meant when she told me her grandad had tried one day to use the underground, given up and had chosen to use the buses instead. He also said people were much friendlier on the buses!
Throughout the trip my sympathy as to what people with far more serious and permanent disabilities than I must have to tackle, put up with and face on a daily basis, rose to new heights. It is an experience I will make sure I never forget. I think I am far more empathic towards disability than these people displayed (I certainly give up my seat) but I am going to make doubly sure in the future that I greet and treat them as exactly what they are, my fellow human being and peers. So, the next time you use the underground, turn on your disability awareness radar, smile at the poor soul struggling, and offer them a seat.
It is all about having empathy and there is a great quote from To Kill a Mockingbird that sums this up….