When an able bodied person tells a person of disability that they don’t see them, think of them or consider them disabled, I’m sure it is said with the best of intentions. Much like how it is when a person consoles a victim of racism with the words that they “don’t see colour”.
I do understand why we say these things because I used to too.
I once told an incredible man I met who was paralysed and dependent on a wheelchair that I just didn’t “see or think of them” as disabled. I thought that was a compliment and meant it with the very best of intentions. Whatever my fictitious version of disabled was at the time, it was probably very Stephen Hawkins-esque and anyone that fell short of requiring the most extreme support to function, I felt, deserved to hear that they were just like one of us.
I wanted it to portray a unity between us, disperse any potential narrative that implied I thought of them differently, let alone negatively, or considered their disability/colour in any way a hindrance or disadvantage to them.
However, to tell someone that you don’t think of them as disabled isn’t kind. It’s an unintentional acknowledgment that you don’t see, think of or understand the complexities, physical and emotional hardships or difficulties experienced by that person.
As an able bodied person, no you don’t ‘see’ the daily difficulties, because like the white man to the man of colour, you may have never been vilified with racist abuse to understand that racism exists.
As a disabled person we don’t want to be seen as disabled by whatever negative implications or connotations that may mean, but to ignore that we are is to disable us.
I have a good friend, who is in a wheelchair. To tell him I don’t see him as different to me is to indirectly tell him I won’t notice when he needs me because of those differences. It’s to make him now feel awkward to ask for help. Having different needs to me doesn’t make him any less of a person or any less important. Being respectful of our differences is what allows me to talk to him normally and directly, yet also offer him support into a car.
To identify me as the same person I was before I lost my leg, is to deny me my right to the fact that my life isn’t always as easy as it once was. To be truly compassionate we have to see that.
Sometimes disabled people, of whatever level of function, need you to see that they may be tired, hurting, need something carried, need something moved, or a door to be held just a little longer. We may need an extra rest when you don’t.
Slow down, walk with me, don’t make me ask you to join me at my pace or hurt myself trying to catch up. See that I need those things to not feel different. Recognise the differences between us to enable us to not be so. This is true compassion.
[This post was written by Zoe Smith, our fabulous administration assistant, who was involved in a road traffic accident in 2009, sustaining a serious injury to her left foot. After countless operations, in an attempt to restore a level of mobility and function to her foot, the decision was made for her to undergo a below knee amputation in 2015. Since this time Zoe has participated in the LimbPower 2015/2016 games and has worked around the world as an actor with Casualty Resources, a company which provides Casualty Simulation actors for the military and other front line services. Zoe has also recently started training to hopefully join the England Adaptive Surf Team].