A petite woman named Caroline sat alone against the back wall of the large room. The party was in full swing, but no one came near her. In fact, people rarely even glanced in her direction. It was as if she was invisible. Everyone else was talking and laughing, engaged in animated conversations. There was music playing and couples were dancing. On the far side of the room, there were several long tables covered with a wide variety of refreshments and people were eagerly filling their plates. But Caroline remained completely alone sitting in the new dress she had bought the week before.
Although she did not realize that she was the only person at the party with a developmental disability, everyone else was very aware of that fact. Caroline’s demeanor, her physical awkwardness, and her repetitive tics were obvious signals to others in the room.
As she sat quietly watching people come and go, a tall attractive woman named Allison walked in with two girlfriends. The three of them had been looking forward to the party all week. Allison quickly glanced around the room and saw other faces that she recognized. She paid no attention to Caroline sitting against the wall.
Caroline, however, noticed Allison immediately. She was wearing a bright green dress and she was one of the prettiest women there. Caroline was amazed at how friendly and genuine she seemed. She watched with envy as Allison walked around the room, easily talking and laughing with almost everyone. She was a person that moved confidently from group to group. She apparently was very interesting, and people hung on her every word.
That was in stark contrast to Caroline’s reality. Born with an intellectual challenge and cerebral palsy, Caroline’s entire existence had been framed by her disability. Her life had been filled with countless issues all of which she had faced to the best of her ability, but the one obstacle she had never been able to overcome was the way people viewed her. Their inaccurate judgment and unfair opinions about her diagnosis had been beyond her ability to control. She felt powerless when someone dismissed her as not worth bothering with. She knew firsthand what it was like to not be accepted because of something you could not help. To a large extent, the way people reacted to her had been the greatest stumbling block in her life. Caroline would often go for days without being spoken to by anyone but family and those who were paid to interact with her. Although she had never been physically harmed, Caroline had often been the target of emotional bullying. She had experienced the deep pain of being laughed at and ridiculed.
Unfortunately, it seemed like no one understood how it felt to always be on the outside looking in. They did not realize what it was like to be treated as less of a person. They did not appreciate the incredible effort it required for her to do the things that came to them easily. She still had many challenges to face, and it would make everything so much easier if she did not have to deal with the limited thinking and outdated attitudes of other people.
Caroline had accomplished a great deal, but for the most part, they were solitary achievements, things that she could do alone. She knew she had the right to seek happiness in all areas of her life and not just where it was convenient for others to assist her. She enjoyed being as independent as possible, and she tried to be active and involved. But the attitudes of others sometimes blocked her path. She wanted them to understand that she was just a person doing her best to live the only life she would have in this world.
Allison, however, was no stranger to parties and countless other activities. Her pleasant personality and physical attractiveness ensured that she received a steady stream of attention wherever she went. She enjoyed people, and she had a natural gift for making conversation. She honestly could not remember a time when she was not popular, however, it was not something she really thought about much, assuming it was a normal part of life. She made friends easily and she had a string of boyfriends, some relationships being more serious than others. The fact that people liked her was something she had always taken for granted.
On the other hand, Caroline took nothing for granted. Because of her various challenges, coming to this party had been a struggle, but her attendance reflected her intense desire to be a part of the community. Although her cerebral palsy made her unsteady when she walked, she was sure she could dance with another person helping to support her. She would give almost anything to try. As she watched the couples moving to the music, she could not help but feel left out. She often dreamed at night of gracefully gliding around the dance floor in someone’s arms, but to this point, it had remained a fantasy.
Ironically Allison sometimes she grew tired of constantly being the center of attention. She often wondered what it would be like to be left alone so she could relax in peace and quiet. Because so many people were drawn to her it was difficult for her to know who she could trust and who her true friends were. Too often people were attracted by her physical beauty, and they didn’t really care about knowing her as a person. Their conversations tended to be superficial and without any real substance. Allison longed to have meaningful discussions about things that were important to her. She wanted to share her ideas and opinions with people who could appreciate them.
Caroline also had important things she wanted to express. She could speak with difficulty, but if a person listened closely they could understand her. However, she was usually not able to hold the attention of others and therefore she often remained silent. But that did not mean she had nothing to say. Actually, her mind was filled with thoughts she wanted to convey, but people rarely respected her right to be heard. She often felt imprisoned due to the lack of sensitivity of others. Because her self-consciousness made her reluctant to speak first, people mistook this characteristic as an unwillingness to make contact, when actually she deeply wanted to connect with others. Her loneliness had been a never-ending burden all of her life, and she was feeling increasingly isolated as time went by.
In dramatic contrast, Allison’s life had always been relatively easy. She excelled at most things, and when she did occasionally struggle, people were quick to assist her. She had been blessed with good health and had never faced any particular challenges that she couldn’t eventually overcome. Through no fault of her own, her problem free life had given her a positive point of view that she thought everyone should have.
That upbeat attitude was on full display as Allison slowly moved around the room talking to those she knew and being introduced to others. She made small talk effortlessly and laughed in a natural unforced way. She had the ability to make people instantly feel comfortable around her. It was while she was chatting with a couple she had just met that she first noticed the woman sitting against the back wall. While she carried on a conversation with the two individuals, she kept discreetly glancing past their shoulders at the small woman who obviously did not fit in.
After a few more minutes had passed, Allison realized that the woman was also watching her. She could feel her eyes following her every move, and for some reason, it made her uneasy. Why was the lady singling her out? Why did she deserve to be the focus of this person’s attention? Allison was just here to have fun. Why was she beginning to feel guilty just for being herself? It was not her fault she well liked and that people enjoyed being with her. There was nothing she could do about the fact that the woman was all alone.
Just an hour before, when Caroline was at home getting ready for the party, she had taken one final look in the mirror. In the reflection, she saw herself in a beautiful new dress. She liked the way her hair was fixed, and she loved the large earrings that diverted attention away from her hearing aids. She even thought that the new larger frames for her glasses hid some of her facial tics. Looking back at her, she saw a person who wanted to be included, who wanted to join in the fun. She saw someone who wanted to talk with people and to hopefully make friends. She saw a woman who dreamed about being asked to dance. She imagined a nice man holding her hand and smiling at her. In her mind she pictured people complimenting her on her dress and hair. Deep down she longed to be treated like everyone else. She did not want to stand out, she wanted to blend in. She had dared to hope that this night would be different. That some individual would make the effort to include her and make her feel welcome.
But once she was at the party, most of the people looked at Caroline and saw a woman wearing an inappropriate dress that was far too formal for such a casual event. Others disapproved of her hair style that was no longer in fashion. They easily noticed her hearing aids and the thick lenses of her glasses that did nothing to hide the facial tics that became more pronounced with her nervousness. They saw the leg braces that extended below the hemline of her dress down to the custom made orthopedic shoes that were required to help with her balance. They watched her use her right hand to try and hold her left hand steady because of an uncontrollable tremor. And next to her chair they could not help but see the walker that allowed her to move around freely.
When they stared at Caroline they saw everything except who she was as a person.
Sadly the real Caroline was completely invisible to them, hidden by their misconceptions, bias, and ignorance. They chose not to experience her warm personality or her sense of humor. They refused to enjoy her kindness, generosity, and enthusiasm for life. And they did not appreciate the incredible fortitude it took for Caroline to sit there, feeling lost and insecure, while they deemed her to be someone unworthy of their attention.
Caroline wished the people at the party could understand that she was not someone to feel sorry for or to ignore. She was not someone to be neglected or left behind. She did not want their preconceived judgments or pity, she wanted to participate. She wanted to be included and to be accepted. She wanted to live her life to the fullest.
Allison was among those who were trying their best to ignore Caroline, but she was not succeeding. The woman seemed completely out of place, but there was something about the way this small quiet person kept trying to make eye contact with anyone who came near her that touched Allison. However, after several more minutes, of watching her, she finally decided to push Caroline out of her mind and just enjoy the evening. She wasn’t going to let one person detract her from having a good time.
As the party continued, nothing changed. People flocked around Allison and completely ignored Caroline. Although she realized she was probably not going to be joining any conversations or be asked to dance, Caroline wished she could at least get something to eat, but even that was out of the question. The food looked delicious, but she didn’t dare go near the tables because it would be too difficult to balance a plate and drink with her walker, and it appeared doubtful that anyone would be willing to assist her. Besides, her tremor created a tendency to spill, and she didn’t want anyone to have to clean up after her. But none of this was unusual. Caroline had spent her life doing without rather than inconveniencing others.
60 feet away, Allison, who remained the center of attention, could not get Caroline out of her mind. She tried to imagine how her life would change if she had the same challenges as the mysterious woman, but it was impossible. She simply could not picture herself needing assistance to walk. It was unthinkable that her natural beauty could be marred by muscle spasms or that her delicate hands with manicured nails could ever tremble uncontrollably. The hearing aids and thick glasses were too much to even consider. And she knew she would never be able to tolerate being ignored or rejected.
Across the room, Caroline could only dream of being like the pretty lady. It would be amazing to be graceful and well spoken. How wonderful it would feel to have people want to talk to you. It would seem magical to fit in and not have people stare at you. Caroline tried to imagine what it would be like to be popular and to be respected. How different life would be if all of that was true for her.
As the evening went by, someone would occasionally wander near Caroline, glance in her direction but then move away. For over two hours she sat in the same chair and no one spoke to her. She smiled at people at every opportunity but they ignored her. In her mind, she kept telling herself that she was a person just like them, that she was not different and that they were the ones with issues, not her. But that only helped for a little while. Eventually, she realized that tonight was not going to be special. This was not going to be the evening she had dreamed about. The loneliness that had been her constant companion through the years began to fill her heart with regret. It was the familiar feeling that came over her each time she allowed herself to dwell on what she was missing in life.
From the other side if the dance floor Allison kept an eye on the woman. She saw people pass near her, and she began to hope that one of them would stop and speak to the lady. But each person refused to acknowledge Caroline as if she was not sitting in plain sight. Although Allison had tried all through the night not to think about her, she was now becoming curious about the woman. Instead of only seeing her obvious disability, Allison began to notice something else about her.
As she watched Caroline sitting by herself against the wall she began to sense a strong determination on the part of the woman to see the party through to the very end. Certainly, it could not be easy to continually be ignored. It had to hurt. The rejection she was receiving must be humiliating. Allison wondered why she was putting herself through this. For someone who was comfortable in social settings, it was difficult for Allison to understand why a person who seemed so ill at ease would endure a situation filled with strangers.
As Caroline sat quietly against the wall she became less confident with each passing minute. She had hoped this would be the night that someone would reach out to her. Perhaps someone would start a conversation with her or even ask her dance, but it was going to end the way it always did. At times like this, she became filled with self-doubt. Why were people afraid to approach her? What was it about her that made them turn away? Was she going to remain lonely for the rest of her life?
The longer Allison watched the woman, the more interesting she became. Although they were complete strangers, the lady’s awkwardness and isolation slowly made Allison develop a warm feeling of compassion for her. Since arriving at the party Allison had spoken to dozens of people, but the woman had not had the chance to exchange a single word with another person. Yet she kept smiling and nodding at anyone who came near her.
Caroline continued to lose hope that someone would stop and say something to her. She thought about getting up and trying to walk around the room, thinking that if she came close enough to a group of people they might include her, but she was afraid she would just make them feel uncomfortable, and they would move away. Besides she already felt self-consciousness enough. She didn’t want to appear desperate too.
Allison was now convinced that the woman had both intellectual and physical challenges, but the thing that struck Allison was how alone she looked. An entire party was taking place in front of her and yet she was completely separate from it. She wondered if Caroline was getting hungry or if she would like to sit and chat with someone. She wondered if she knew how to dance and if she was physically able to. She was curious about how she got to the party and how she would be getting home. Most of all she wondered how painful it was to sit and be ignored by so many other people.
Over the next thirty minutes, Allison danced with several different partners. She wished she knew them well enough to ask them to go talk to the lady, but it didn’t seem right to expect them to do something she was hesitant to do herself. But why did she feel reluctant to approach the woman? Was it because of the way she looked? Was it her mannerisms? Was it the hearing aids, glasses, and walker? Was it the fear of embarrassment if it was an awkward moment? Or was the real reason even more unpleasant? Did she not want to interact with the woman because she did not believe that Caroline was her equal?
Eventually, the party began to wind down. Allison had agreed to leave with her friends and go to a nearby restaurant, but first, she wanted to go to the ladies room and freshen up. However, she knew she would have to walk past the woman sitting alone, and it made her uncomfortable. She had ignored her throughout the evening, and now she had a sense of uneasiness that she could not shake. But her friends were in a hurry so she headed along the wall towards the exit. Just as she got to the woman’s walker Caroline lifted her head and was surprised to see the pretty lady passing so near. Summoning all of the courage she possessed, Caroline shyly looked at Allison, smiled and in a struggling voice said, “Hello”. Completely caught off guard, Allison felt a wave of self-consciousness instantly sweep over her. She hesitated for just a moment, but then made the unfortunate decision to look away. Without responding she quickened her pace and hurried out of the room.
Caroline could feel her face turning bright red. She was embarrassed, confused and hurt all at the same time. The lady in the green dress had looked right at her, certainly, she saw her smile and heard her speak, and yet she didn’t react. What little hope Caroline had left for the evening instantly evaporated away. She told herself it had been a terrible mistake to come to this party. What was she thinking? Why would anyone want to speak to her, particularly the prettiest girl there? Tears began to burn her eyes which only added to her discomfort. Perhaps, she thought to herself, she should just learn her lesson once and for all and forget about having a social life and making friends. If this was how it was always going to be then it just wasn’t worth the pain and humiliation to keep trying.
Inside the ladies room, Allison stood in front of the mirror and stared at her reflection. The woman had smiled and spoken to her, and she had refused to extend the basic courtesy of acknowledging her. Allison felt conflicting emotions. She was both disappointed in herself and frustrated that she had been put in this position. Why was this even happening? Who was this woman and why was she here? This was supposed to be a night to relax and have fun. Now she stood here feeling guilty. But the image of the woman’s simple but sincere attempt to connect kept flashing through her mind, and she realized that Caroline had also come in the hope of having a good time – but what had she gotten instead?
As the minutes ticked by Allison struggled with her feelings. She knew she had to get back out there with her friends, but that meant she had to face the woman again. On the other hand, she did not want to be the kind of person who would ignore someone just because they had a disability. Allison knew very little about such challenges, but now she felt compelled to make an effort to reach out to the person. She owed her that much after the way she had treated her.
Running through various scenarios in her mind, Allison decided she would sit down and try to talk with the woman and maybe see if she would like something to eat. She could help her with that and then she would see where it went from there. However, thinking about it and doing it were two very different things. It surprised her how much nerve it took for her to walk out and simply do the right thing. She hesitated for a few more seconds, then she took a deep breath and stepped through the door.
As Allison entered the room she immediately looked over to where the woman was seated – but the chair was empty. She also noticed that the walker was missing. She quickly looked all around the room, but she was gone. Allison’s heart sank. She felt terrible, and she had no one to blame but herself. For two hours she had the opportunity speak to the woman and she didn’t. She wondered if the coldness she had shown Caroline was the last straw in a long painful evening of rejection. She was overwhelmed with a deep sense of guilt, and for the first time in her life, Allison felt ashamed.
What had started out as a night of fun had now turned into a powerful lesson that Allison would remember for the rest of her life. She silently vowed to herself that she would never again pass up the opportunity to reach out to another human being.
Caroline had come to the dance alone and sadly she left alone. But after taking some time to recover from her disappointment, she would try again on another evening. She would not give up her efforts to be acknowledged and appreciated. Although she did not realize it, she had been the bravest person at the party. Her willingness to keep trying in social settings, no matter what the results, was something to be admired. Her need to connect with others was a simple human emotion that, when denied, forced her to make choices that took her far outside her comfort zone. But she would persist because this was her life to live the way she wanted.
Two people attended the same party, but they had completely different experiences resulting from one individual’s decision to keep their distance from the other. But then, because of a particular circumstance, they finally came together at a single point in time that could have been important for both of them – but the moment was missed. Perhaps it would have been a brief encounter that would have gone no further, but just maybe it would have been the start of something meaningful in both of their lives. The answer can never be known. All that is certain is that a person passed up the opportunity to interact in a positive way with someone who had demonstrated the inner strength to reach out, despite being scared and feeling vulnerable.
Several hours later as they each laid in their beds, miles apart, the two women reflected back on the events of the evening and both felt a tremendous sense of sadness and regret. But those feelings could have been avoided if only Allison had been as courageous as Caroline.