As if..?

Sculpture by Rob Mulholland

“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.

 

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com.
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69 Responses to As if..?

  1. Very well said. And very true.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Miriam says:

    A thought provoking post Sue. And so incredibly true.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ritu says:

    Lots of food for thought there Sue! It’s far too easy for us to judge… And react, often inappropriately.

    Like

  4. It is a difficult one Sue. I saw a really interesting interaction in the playground yesterday, (I’m currently working in a primary school.) A boy was wheeling a disabled boy round in his wheelchair, quite sedately and then he started spinning him round and round. The boy in the wheelchair looked as if he was having the time of his life, but health and safety got in the way and they were told off! It was nice to see a able bodied person interacting with a disabled person in this way, having a bit of fun, even if it was perhaps a bit hazardous!

    Like

  5. jenanita01 says:

    Just lately, I have become aware of a subtle change in the way people treat me. Most of my life I have been one of those invisible people. Being tall and withdrawn, I think it was easier to ignore me and most of the time that was fine. Now I am hurtling into old age, I am being treated by most people as if I am in my dotage. Poor old girl, she can’t help it, kind of thing. I am being escorted across roads, and doors are being opened for me. It’s altogether a bit strange…

    Like

  6. Mary Smith says:

    It is a good subject for a blog post. I think our own initial assumptions may be from how humans instinctively view any form of ‘otherness’. We are wary of anything we don’t fully understand and our reactions can be to pull back or over-compensate to cover our embarrassment.
    “Does he take sugar in his tea?” I’ve been asked this when out with a visually impaired friend. I told her to ask him, which she did – very slowly and very loudly.
    Once, when I worked for a care agency the support worker was preparing a personal care plan for a service user, a wheelchair user, who said he wanted to meet girls, really wanted a girlfriend. The support worker suggested he join some disability groups as a way of meeting people. He asked her why she assumed he’d want to date a disabled girl.
    It’s a very big subject!

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      It’s a huge subject and I recognise all of those attitudes… and they were probably born of a real desire to be helpful, which almost make sit worse. Like the time, not long after the attack when his speech was still bad, that a woman told Nick rather nastily to phone back when he was sober.He didn’t. I did.
      (Still makes my blood boil, that one…)
      You’re right about the ‘otherness’ and I think that extends to anyone we meet who is in any way different.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Victo Dolore says:

    I especially love the last paragraph. 🙂

    Like

  8. So well written. I love this. Poignant – showing how such personal experiences reflect universal threads of humanity – many facets of humanity! – and vice versa. Thank you for writing this.

    Like

  9. Of course it’s so close to your heart, Sue, and you address it with dignity and love. Well done. I was moved by your mention of those illnesses that are devastating, but not outwardly visible. We just need to treat everyone with kindness and respect. We don’t know their path.

    Thanks for this one. 💓 💗 💖 💘

    Like

  10. Sometimes I wish that we were more like Peanuts characters… “I thought he was just a funny-looking kid with a big nose.”

    Like

  11. Annette Rochelle Aben says:

    Brava! I am most grateful for this post. For the past ten years I have been everything from pitied to ignored and not just by people I don’t know, but by family and friends. One friend told me that she couldn’t take seeing me “like this” because it upset her so and as a result she has never even spoken to me again. Honestly, I get that those who knew me when I was fully mobile under my own physical power, without the aid of an appliance, don’t know how to react but I am still me. Me with a walker. Me with legs who long to function as they once did but strive for better each day! ❤

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      It is hard watching people step out of your life when something happens to make you different from how you were…even though we all change with the years anyway. I get that it makes it hard to accomodate for the extra time and effort involved in going out with a wheelchair…or a walking frame. But if you really care about a person, why on earth should that matter?

      Like

  12. LindaGHill says:

    I had an boyfriend once, who ended up in a wheelchair. Before he did, whenever we went into a computer or games store together, the clerk would speak to him first and ignored me. After the wheelchair made an appearance, they spoke to me as though he didn’t exist. That made a huge impression on me and now I DO treat anyone with an obvious disability the same as I treat any other human being. Thank you for this insightful post, Sue. 🙂
    I’m writing on a similar theme for my A to Z this year. I’d be honoured if you’d drop by, if you have time. 🙂

    Like

  13. Eliza Waters says:

    Thoughtful post, Sue. It is true that we seldom know what another’s story is, as we are often too busy running our own through our head. The most we can strive for is compassionate non-judgment. Not always easy, but worth working towards.

    Like

  14. An excellent post. Thank you.

    Like

  15. I can understand better now about people’s attitudes. The fact that the world is becoming scarier certainly doesn’t help. Good piece, Sue. —- Suzanne

    Like

  16. hsampson says:

    Wonderful lesson here Sue! Thank you for sharing this!!

    Like

  17. dgkaye says:

    This is a wonderful article Sue. So much truth here. People get flustered in uncomfortable situations, causing the opposite impression we wanted to make. Thanks for putting these thoughts out here in the universe and blogosphere. xoxo 🙂

    Like

  18. macjam47 says:

    Oh, Sue, this is so beautifully written, and yes, so true. Thank you for sharing this story. It is something everyone should read as I’m sure many act this way believing they are responding correctly.

    Like

  19. macjam47 says:

    Reblogged this on BOOK CHAT and commented:
    a very insightful post by Sue Vincent.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Dear Sue, my heart goes out to you. Being the mother of a son with multiple challenges, I can only imagine the hurdles you and your son face every day, many of which don’t occur to most folks. I love your insights, and that you shared the judgments you made before you experienced your son’s challenges. There is another side of this equation that I’d like to point out: that is the matter of parents (or caregivers) of special needs children who continually and freely share personal information about their child’s challenges, with anyone who will listen. Is it respectful or appropriate to announce a child’s physical, mental, or behavioral challenges with strangers, or friends in passing? We know the power of labeling individuals, about how it shapes self-identity and expectation, and yet many folks do not practice discretion with special needs children. Why not point out what they are doing well? Why not celebrate something positive about them? It is a crime to hem them in with what’s “wrong.”

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I agree with you, Robin, at least in part. It may be that only by sharing some of the challenges can we raise awareness. I know my son writes about some of the things he faces purely in order to increase understanding and make the subject less invisible. On the other hand, we do tend to celebrate his triumphs and terrible sense of humour more than delving into the more difficult side. You can see for yourself … there is plenty to celebrate:) https://nickverron.com/

      Like

  21. Norah says:

    Beautiful, important and powerful post, Sue. Thank you (to you and your son) for sharing. I think your last statement sums it up beautifully: we are responsible for what’s in our hearts and minds. Overcoming that ‘as if’ could take some work. This is a good starting post.

    Like

  22. All good points, but I think you’re too hard on yourself. There is a contradiction between “I always treated them as customers” and the desire to be helpful. For example, the couple you mentioned might have trouble opening the door (I don’t know if that’s the case; I’m merely making a point). Obviously, you would help them, even if that’s not what you’d do with the rest of your customers.

    Mind you, it’s the same with, say, helping a mother with a trolley get the door or a delivery man with their hands full. I think the extra dimension is that you can’t anticipate a disabled person’s needs, whereas it’s easier to do so in these other cases.

    My thoughts stem from a personal experience in Edinburgh. A blind man was lost in the middle of the St. James Center (a mall). Everyone ignored him, ie. treating him just like everyone else. That is until he started cussing at us, for not helping him when he needed assistance. I took him by the hand and helped him out of the mall, but was conflicted as to what the right thing to do was in this situation.

    At the end of the day, having a disability doesn’t magically make you the same as the rest of the disabled population. You can still be a happy, cranky, sad and mad person just like the rest of the world. So, what’s appropriate for one person will be offensive to another.

    Like

  23. olganm says:

    Great post, Sue. Nicholas makes a good point too.

    Like

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