“You should write about it,” said my son. “It would make a good subject for a blog post.” He was right, but it wouldn’t make for a comfortable one. We had been discussing the assumptions people make based upon appearances. It is not an uncommon topic when my son faces the world from the level of a wheelchair. The variation in the way he is spoken to by strangers is wide, ranging from those who just speak to the human being, to those who feel they have to treat a 32 year old man as a backward child.
We all experience this instant assessment every day, both as its focus and as the assessor. Most of us give little thought to such casual interactions, from either perspective. It is just the way we are built and probably stems from a very early mechanism for survival. For safety’s sake, we would have had to have made an instant, if not always correct, assessment of whether the wild beast or the caveman next door were safe or dangerous. With the increased sophistication of human relationships over the millennia, we seem to have extended those unconscious, reflexive judgements to encompass a much wider spectrum of characteristics and our initial interactions with each other are bound to be coloured by them.
Most of the time, we simply do not notice, particularly if we are at ease with ourselves. It is only when we are in unusual situations…like a job interview or a wheelchair… that we may become acutely aware of the reactions of others to that first meeting. It normally only takes a brief exchange of conversation for those initial impressions to be revised and the more we get to know someone, the more we come to rely on what we learn rather than what we had assumed. They cease to be strangers, disconnected and at a distance from us, and begin… through communication… to be ‘real’ and present.
There is often awkwardness attached to a first encounter because neither party knows anything at all about the other. Where a wheelchair or obvious disability is concerned, that can leave the other person feeling out on a limb. It is impossible to know what abilities or limitations a person may have, or how they will react and so it can feel difficult to determine how best to speak with them, especially if you have no personal experience of disability within your circle of acquaintances. I wonder if it is really their reaction that worries us, but our own.
Most people are still open and friendly. Some shy away. Others behave as if you are invisible. There may be many reasons, including the desire not to ‘get it wrong’ or say the wrong thing. Even helpfulness can be shunned. You may feel like a fish out of water and, with the best and most genuine of intentions, still take an approach that is less than appropriate. Fear of offending, where no offense is intended, will make for a stilted conversation at best.
My son and I have spoken of this often and he says that he himself often felt that unease and fear of giving offense around disabled people…until he became one of them and saw the exchange from the other side.
I remember how awkward I used to feel too. I told him of one particular incident that stands out in memory. I lived in a town famous for its spinal injuries centre and a young couple regularly came into the jeweller’s shop where I worked. I was young, but by far the oldest staff member and was often left to deal with any irate or troublesome customers. I was always left to serve this couple too. They came in on trolley-chairs, laying prone, so physically it was not easy to make eye contact with them as their faces were facing the floor. Even so, I always tried to treat them as if they were any other customer. Until the day I realised just what that implied.
‘I always tried to treat them as if they were any other customer’… it is a telling phrase and struck me like the proverbial wet fish between the eyes. I shouldn’t have had to ‘try’. There should have been no ‘as if’. Which meant that somewhere, far beneath the surface where I had never suspected they lurked, the assumptions I was unconsciously making were way out of line. And I had never realised.
I wondered how I could make it better. ‘Rephrase’ my actions? ‘I always treated them as customers’ perhaps, which was what I had assumed I meant. But no. The thought should have been absent altogether. We are all human beings. The realisation of that hitherto invisible judgement pulled me up short and made me re-examine some really uncomfortable parts of my mind.
It made me think too of the invisible challenges that people face, often just as debilitating, from chronic shyness to diminished hearing or vision, to the unseen presence of many painful ailments, to the depths of grief or depression. We do not tend to judge or react to invisible ‘disabilities’ in the same way, simply because we cannot see them and therefore they do not challenge us… and yet, we have just as little indication of how someone will react to our initial engagement with them.
We share a common thread of humanity, regardless of age, gender, race or form. When we meet someone for the first time, we have no way of knowing what is in their mind and heart, but in that moment, we are responsible only for our own.