empathy – a ‘doing’ not a ‘being’

This post is not about how very wrong Baron-Cohen got it when insisting that autistic people have no empathy. This is about a video I watched and its impact on me.

Here it is.

Watch this. It is very poignant and thought provoking. It may represent just one deaf man’s experience, but I did identify with some things. I would not wish to be deaf, neither can I truly understand the world of the deaf. I am not able to gain 100% empathy with anyone else, because I am not that other person. We are individuals first and foremost, although our disabilities / abilities influence our perceptions, experiences and needs. But I do believe I can achieve a good amount of empathy for others if I make a conscious effort. And from what I have seen, this is something everyone, regardless of neurological make up, needs to do, if they wish to be truly empathic (as opposed to false empathy, which so many neurotypicals bandy about).

This video raised the following questions in my mind. How do we treat our own family members with disabilities? How do we react to those amongst us who have disabilities that we do not have? What is a disability to you? How far would you go to accommodate as well as understand someone’s disability? Not just the obvious ones, but the less obvious ones? Do we, the disabled, have to pay a penalty for making more effort to overcome our disabilities?

Empathy is a very thorny issue. In sensory terms, to me, it has a ‘thorny-sticky-gooey’ texture. Everyone likes to claim they possess this quality, but I have met very very few who actually do. And these are the people who make great effort to stay empathic, because situations change and evolve, and every encounter is different, albeit subtly so.

At a workshop I attended a few months ago, I encountered zero empathy, and zero interest in developing any, from most of the people there, including the organiser, except for one person – who happened to also have a disability, although different from mine. I surmised that this was because we, the disabled, are more aware of the concept of disability in the first place, what it means to be different, while everyone else probably never gives it even a split second of thought. Not until something happens to them, I guess. However, this cannot be assumed. I have encountered similar rudeness and carelessness from people in the disabled community – probably because they viewed my disability as not worthy of their definition of disability.

Recently, I made a request to my university to allow me a special privilege, which would help me with anxiety issues and thus better concentrate on my work. The problem had caused me many sleepless nights, and I have never once asked for support for any of my disabilities. Without going into too much detail here (some day I might publish a book!), I would put it this way: my world has been like a very busy and unforgiving highway. If you suffer a breakdown, and you are unable to pull over to the side and fix your own mechanical problems, you will be run over, and sometimes the people running you down would have a grand time mocking you while they are at it. So, put on your empathic hearts and try to imagine the overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude, and yes, even awe, when I met with so much empathy, kindness and support from the faculty at my university. They not only granted my application for this special privilege, they went beyond the call of official duty to be encouraging and thoughtful.

Empathy may not be an innate feature in humans, but I am certain that those of us who care enough to keep working at the awareness and practice of empathy, will be able to attain a good measure of it. Empathy is a doing, not just a state of being.

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