What do you see when you encounter someone you believe is different than you? Do you see someone who makes you feel uncomfortable? Do you see only the characteristics that you don’t understand? Do you see someone who leads you to make unfair comparisons or form instant opinions based only on appearances without any facts? Do you see a person you believe to be broken or inferior in some way? Perhaps you prefer to turn away so you don’t have to see them at all.
Although people may have many excuses for why they react this way, it simply does not make sense to automatically judge someone we do not know. We do a disservice to them and ourselves when we close our minds to the beauty of diversity by refusing to accept the fact that all people are equal.
Consider the following examples.
You are reading when you look up and see a young woman with cerebral palsy enter the library. You watch as she carefully makes her way to the front desk. The fact that she uses a walker to help with her balance makes you jump to the conclusion that she needs help with almost everything. Her uneven gait and the jerking movements of her arms keep you from noticing her smile. You hear some of her conversation with the librarian at the desk, but the woman’s speech is slurred making it difficult to understand. That makes you wonder about the quality of her thoughts and whether it is worth the effort to attempt to understand what she is trying to express.
But if you would look past the motor function issues associated with her condition you would see a woman who is friendly and outgoing. You’d see a person who does not let herself to be defined by her disability and does not allow the judgment of others to affect how she views herself. You would be able to appreciate that she is a person who is comfortable with who she is and feels confident about her future. You’d see a person who is making her way through life on her own terms, and you would notice her beautiful smile.
You watch as a child becomes upset in a department store, and their behavior quickly escalates to the point that it seems beyond the capability of their parents to control them. Your immediate reaction is to assume that the child is spoiled or ill-mannered. You think that it is a temper tantrum and that it probably happens all the time. You do not consider what could be causing the behavior. Instead, you judge the mother and father harshly on their parenting skills.
If you would stop and think for a moment, it might occur to you that a diagnosis of autism could explain the display of emotion. That would encourage you to feel empathy for the parents who are doing the best they can under extremely difficult circumstances. You could appreciate the parents’ struggle to control their own feelings because they know that their child is dealing with challenges that many people refuse to try to understand. You would then see that this mother and father should not be judged but rather supported.
You are standing in line at the airport when you see a man with paraplegia using a wheel chair. Your imagination runs wild as you try to imagine all the possible reasons he is using the chair. You wonder if he was born with a disability or if he had an accident or illness later in life. You quickly run through a mental list of all the things you believe he can’t do. You assume that he needs assistance with basic living skills, therefore you think that he cannot possibly be happy. You begin to feel sympathy for him.
But instead of only looking at this individual in a negative way, you could attempt to focus on the fact that he is living his life to the fullest just like anyone else. You could admire his inner strength that allows him to face daily challenges that you are spared. You could appreciate his efforts to overcome physical barriers that have thoughtlessly been placed in his way. You could realize that you have seen someone who is living their life with dignity.
You watch as a waitress takes the orders of three women at a table. One of them catches your eye because she is pale, gaunt and has lost her hair. You can’t help but notice the long scar on the right side of her skull. You can only guess at what horror this person is living through, and although you feel sorry for her, she makes you feel uncomfortable. You wish you didn’t have to eat a meal and be reminded the entire time of how awful life can be. You look at her and see nothing but misery and suffering.
You would see this woman differently if you knew she was out tonight with her friends because she is celebrating the end of her chemotherapy treatments. If there is anyone who deserves a nice evening out it is this woman. The brain tumor that was diagnosed months earlier has taken the sight in one eye and severely impacted her short-term memory. However, she is fighting to regain her life with every bit of her being. Your brief discomfort pales in comparison to the joy she feels tonight to be alive and to have hope for the future.
You are shopping in a supermarket when see a married couple using sign language. As you watch their hands forming words, nothing makes sense to you. That leads you to believe that they cannot express their true thoughts and feelings. You think of all the things they can’t hear, such as music, movies, and TV. You focus only on what you believe they are missing in life. You visualize them as being isolated and cut off from mainstream society. You think how sad it is to not be a complete person.
But if you would keep an open mind while you watch them sign, you’d realize that this particular form of communication is just as beautiful and powerful as any other. If you saw them at home you would understand that they love and interact with their children just like any parents. If you saw them at work you would learn that they have careers that are important to them and that they are respected by their peers. In their personal lives, you would find there are many activities they like to share with their friends. However, you would also discover that there is one thing in life they dislike intensely and that is being judged by people who do not know them.
You see a teenage boy slowly walking down the street to catch a school bus. He is limping because one leg is weaker than the other and his right arm appears to be immobile. He is wearing a back pack and carrying a lunch kit in his left hand. You watch with sadness as he carefully makes his way to the corner where he catches the bus. You feel bad that someone so young could have to live his entire life that way. You do not see a person, only a damaged body.
However, you would see the humanity of this young man if you knew of the long arduous struggle he has waged to be able to walk again. After an accident at the age of nine that resulted in a traumatic brain injury, he has spent the last five years enduring multiple surgeries and endless physical therapy. He has had a lifetime of pain condensed into 60 months, and yet he makes his way to school just like other teenagers to receive the education that he hopes will one day lead to a college degree and a career as a software developer. He does not need you to feel bad, he needs you to accept him as a complete person.
As you watch a woman begin to speak to a clerk in a store, you are startled by the fact that she stutters. The clerk quickly becomes impatient as the woman continues her effort to be understood, so he begins to try to answer her questions before she can finish them. This creates complete confusion for both of them. As you watch the woman attempt to convey her thoughts, you can’t imagine how uncomfortable it would be to talk like her. You wonder if she has to endure this kind of awkwardness every time she speaks in public.
What you are failing to see is the courage of the woman to be herself. You do not see the years of self-doubt and the lack of self-esteem that she bravely struggled to overcome. You do not appreciate that she does not try to hide the way she speaks, and she does not allow it to keep her from living her life. Instead of just seeing a person who stutters, you should see a person who does not give up her right to communicate her thoughts and ideas.
You are walking through the mall, following a middle-aged couple a few steps ahead of you. Suddenly the woman collapses to the floor and begins to shake violently. The man kneels next to her and seems to know what to do. You watch as the seizure runs its course and the woman begins to rest quietly. You are unnerved by what you just saw, and you begin to consider what her life must be like. You think about how stressful it would be to live with the constant fear that a seizure could occur at any moment. You wonder how she is able to go on day after day and have any kind of normal life. You see nothing about her but the 30 seconds of electrical activity that took place in her brain.
By focusing only on the seizure, you are not seeing the person’s intense desire to live a life filled with promise and purpose no matter how much epilepsy challenges her. You do not appreciate the perseverance that is evident in her refusal to back down from doing the things that are important to her. You do not see courage she exhibits in her efforts to live in a way that has meaning for her. You do not understand that she defies her diagnosis every time she steps out of the house.
You are at a city park when you notice a man with Down syndrome. Unfortunately, your attention is focused only on the physical characteristics that are unique to this condition. Because you know that an intellectual challenge also accompanies this diagnosis, you wonder about his IQ. As you watch him, you are curious about whether he can read or write. Automatically you think of him as being so different that you could not possibly have anything in common. You cannot picture him as a potential coworker or a friend.
You do not realize that there is far more to see than just the obvious manifestations of having an extra chromosome. You are watching a person who enjoys their life. This individual has a sense of humor and loves being around people. He has hopes and dreams just like everyone else. He has goals that he is working towards, and he wants to be accepted in the community. You, in fact, have a great deal in common with him because you are seeing a human being who is your equal and therefore deserves your respect.
You have been through the buffet line and now you sit down at your table with a heaping plate of food. You glance across the aisle at the older couple sitting opposite you. They appear to be in their seventies, and you see that the man has a severe tremor that makes him shake uncontrollably. You wonder how he is going to be able to feed himself. But then you watch as his wife moves over to his side of the booth. Slowly and carefully she lifts the fork to his mouth over and over again as she feeds him his meal. While she is doing this her food gets cold. You wonder what is wrong with him, and you think to yourself that he must be a terrible burden to her.
But what you are actually seeing is not someone who is a burden, but rather a husband with Parkinson’s disease who is blessed to be in a marriage filled with both affection and respect. What you are witnessing is an act of devotion by his wife of fifty-six years who is tenderly keeping her wedding vow to “comfort and honor him, in sickness and in health”. You may think you are seeing a situation that is filled with heartbreak, but what you are actually seeing is the beauty of unconditional love that all of us should share.
In every one of these examples, the first impression is incorrect. Our rush to judgment often prevents us from seeing the truth. By indulging our own bias we completely miss the reality of what we are experiencing. That is our loss. It is usually the case that who we assume a person to be, based on our uninformed assessment, is far from the truth of who they really are. Too often what we see does not tell the whole story.
Some of the people in these examples were facing challenges that many of us will someday face. When that time comes for us we will not want to be looked down on by others. We will not want to be considered less because of a diagnosis. We will not want to be dismissed as a nuisance or a burden.
It is critical for all of us to make the effort to accept people for who they are without imposing limitations or restrictions that are not deserved. We must be willing to accept the fundamental truth that everyone deserves dignity and respect without exception, and we must learn to appreciate the humanity of every person we meet.
What we see when we encounter a person with a disability reveals more about us than it does them.