Empathy from the other side

“The most basic of human needs is to understand and be understood.” - Ralph Nichols.

A while back I went out for sushi with a friend and she brought one of her coworkers to join us. When they arrived, I noticed her friend had a white cane and she was guiding him to his seat—I realized he was blind. I was intrigued by idea of seeing how a blind person orders and eats their meal at a restaurant.

I noticed my friend reading the menu options for him as we contemplated which rolls to order.  When all of our sushi came out on the same tray, I wondered how he was going to distinguish between different types. He simply reached out to the tray with his chopsticks and asked my husband, who was sitting right across him, to verify the location of his rolls. The rest of dinner was uneventful, and we all enjoyed the conversation.

When my husband and I were driving home, we talked about our experience. “I bet this is the same way people feel when they eat with me for the first time,” I said. “People are curious to see how I’m going to eat without any arms and then later they discuss how interesting it was to see me use my feet to hold my drink and serve myself.”

This time, the tables were turned. My disability was invisible to my friend’s coworker and I was the one wondering how he was going to overcome the challenges that resulted from his disability. The effect of this situation was so profound to me that it lingered in my thoughts long after the experience. The encounter gave me more understanding of the natural curiosity people have about my disability when they meet me.

When new people first see, they often stare silently at me, and so I try to engage them—smile at them from across the room or strike up a conversation. My goal is to make them realize that I’m just a normal person like them. Sometimes, well-meaning people offer me assistance that I don't need, and rather than be annoyed, I now see their offer as their way to connect with me. 

Recently I had another unique experience that gave me more empathy for other people with disabilities. I attended a meeting of Delta Airline’s advisory board on disability. Many Delta leaders, board members, and other employees—all with different disabilities—were in attendance.

On the first evening, shortly after cocktails, the attendees were led into the dining area blindfolded. I was one of five people seated a table near the front of the room. As we were seated, I somehow sensed that no one was sitting to my right. When we were told that we could begin eating, I felt around the table with my right foot for my utensils.  I attempted to eat my salad, but it took me few moments to realize that I was stabbing at the greens with a butter knife.

The person seated to my left had a hearing impairment and was using cochlear implants. Without the ability to see, he found the noise in room so overwhelming, he decided to turn his implants off so he could focus on using just his sense of touch and taste. Going through this experience was awkward, but our group bonded over our shared confusion and laughed at our mishaps. It was a great ice breaker.

I’d like to invite you to consider the point of view not just of people with disabilities, but also those who are encountering them for the first time. Sometimes compassion comes wrapped in curiosity and awkwardness, but friendships can come out of those initial clumsy situations. Empathy is something we can all use more of it in this world. 




Jessica Cox