Empathy for the Disabled


I recently took a trip to the Norfolk municipal building to visit the Utilities Department to get the water turned on in my new residence.

I sat waiting next to four others in office chairs arranged in a semi circle with flickering fluorescent lights overhead. We were all waiting on just one person to help us. An unlikely cast of characters: there was a middle aged Indian man who owned a number of properties around Norfolk, a 30-something black man with a limp who allowed a young single mother bus driver on her lunch break to cut him in line, and me, a former nurse turned patient on social security.

Come to find out, we had each been on disability at a different time in our lives.

The middle aged Indian property owner came from India when he was 19 with 300 dollars in his pocket. He worked hard, long hours everyday. And he worked his way up to be able to provide for his family and manage a number of apartment buildings in Norfolk. He told us like he would tell his children, “If you are willing to do the hard work, you can make it here. The American Dream.” Although he did mention that after a severe leg injury he was on disability for a few years while he recovered, he made sure to drive home the point that he got back to the hard work as soon as he could.

The man sitting next to me must not have been much older than I was. A bit younger than the property owner, this man was not afraid to share his story. He became injured at a young age when, “someone mishandled a fork lift,” and dropped something on him. He had a severe back injury which still plagues him to this day and renders him partially disabled. It took him 8 years to receive disability and because of that he ended up homeless on the street.

“You see,” said the property owner, “You were homeless but you worked your way back and you aren’t on the street begging for money.”

I could feel the tension rise in the 30-somethings body. An invisible angst that was palpable. He went on to describe his situation saying he had no choice but to be on the street, no support, and disability takes a long time to be approved, if it ever is.

“I’m here to pay the water bill for my friend who is waiting on her disability to come through.”

He wanted to pay if forward. He wanted to help the next person that found herself in such a financially dire situation that she was in danger of losing her home.

“I know how hard it is. I was that guy on the street asking for money, waiting to financial aid that never came. I had no choices.”

The property owner was next in line. He stood up and shook the 30 somethings hand as if to apologize.

“Man, he doesn’t know how it is,” the young guy said to me when he left. “He owns buildings, he doesn’t understand what its like to be on the street without any options.”

And that may be true. The property owner may have forgotten what it was like when he came here so many years ago with a few hundred dollars in his pocket. He may have forgotten what it was like when he became disabled and needed to rely on the financial assistance from the government.

But perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps he had become hardened by the years of working so hard that he slowly began to lack empathy for those in different situations. And don’t we all.

What I learned from that afternoon spent waiting in the Norfolk Municipal Building is this: we have so much to learn from one another. So many people have such difficult pasts that we do not see from outward appearance. I seriously doubt I would have learned so much about these people had we passed in the grocery store or on the street.

I took a brief pause to get the water turned on in my building and I was afforded a little glimpse of what life could be like if we learn to approach one another with empathy rather than judgement.

2 Comments on “Empathy for the Disabled

  1. I think about this all the time when I walk past the homeless man who’s always in front of Starbucks.

  2. I am part of a disability group and to be honest I am not nearly as bad off as many of the members but I remember an experience where I was going to do a talk show interview and I was sitting on the phone listening to the interview before me and it helps me understand the property owner very well.

    The interview before me was Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire. He was talking about his time in Rwanda. He talked about how 8 year olds walked around with machine guns and had dead eyes. They were trained killers and they weren’t even teens yet. He talked about how one time one child was pointing a gun at him and ready to shoot and he saved himself and his fellow soldiers with a chocolate bar (the kid was still a kid about candy).

    After he was done I was almost ashamed to advocate on behalf of people who were very sick but lived in a privileged Western nation. I still am deeply challenged by this experience. What right do I have to demand better treatment when even living at the lowest poverty levels we are still 1%-ers in the world? But it comes back to the listening.

    That land-owner might have looked at me and saw my pain-filled existence where I eat every single day (if I so choose) and I get medical care if required. And if he compared my life to some of the lower castes in India he would realize that I am pampered.

    Maybe he is the one who needed to be heard; he might have told me about how lucky I am to be sick in North America.

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