An article in the Star Tribune by a student named Kate Ross is a reminder that the best way to experience empathy for another person is to actually experience what that person is experiencing. While there are many important and useful ways to increase our empathy–talking to other people, reading about other people, watching films about other people, listening to Ted Talks about other people, meeting and getting to know other people–nothing compares to having the same experience. Many doctors say that they thought they had empathy for what their patients were going through, until they had a serious illness themselves and became a patient. Then their understanding changed and deepened. It became real.
In this case, Kate tells about how she injured both of her legs in an accident and had to use a wheelchair for two months. She says that, like many of us, while she had been sympathetic to people with disabilities, she realized after the accident how far that was from empathy. Then, she experienced for herself how much of a struggle it is for people in wheelchairs to have access to places most of us take for granted. Particularly, she found it difficult to access bathrooms in public places, and to maneuver her wheelchair through crowded restaurants. How many times have any of us sat in a restaurant where the tables are crowded together, and it’s hard enough for those of us who can walk to work our way through the narrow spaces between people sitting at close tables? Although Kate has the use of her legs back, she will assuredly never again use a public bathroom, or move through a crowded public place, or step up easily onto a curb after crossing a street, without thinking about her fellow citizens who happen to be disabled.
And so, she was moved enough by this experience to write an opinion article for a major newspaper, urging us all to truly understand why it is so important for the Americans with Disabilities Act to be enforced.
Of course, it is impossible for anyone to truly experience the life of every other person. But Kate’s story reminds us to be humble–to be careful when we say, “I understand.” We kind of do, but it is important to remember that we also really don’t.