The Limits of Empathy

As you may know from my other posts, I am a person living with a disability – well, a couple. One consequence of this is that I have had the experience of having no neuropathy in my hands, and also of having a very extended period of time (measured in years) where my hands hurt constantly and had motor deficits – e.g., it was difficult to hold a pencil, unlock a door, wash a dish, and so forth. These are things most people may take for granted. I certainly did, before I began living as a person who was one missed dose away from being right back where I started.

A few weeks ago, in one of my classes, there was a presentation on cerebral palsy. The presenters were well-meaning enough, but one of their demonstrations I found to be so misguided as to be offensive, and so upsetting that I actually left the room for the duration. The demonstration purported to teach us ‘what it was like’ to have fine motor deficits. The execution? They handed everyone a button-down shirt and a pair of socks.

“Put the socks on your hand, and then try to button up your shirt. We’ll be timing you and telling you we need to hurry and go to school.” As my classmates began the activity, there was laughter, there was frustration, and there was engagement with the activity. But what there wasn’t, was any questioning of some fundamental assumptions, such as that buttons can only be a particular size (it takes a special kind of asshole to expect a kid with well-established fine motor problems to button up a standard shirt). What I also did not see was any attempt to challenge the narrative of disability: that “they” are just like “us” – but worse. And certainly, what came across was a repetition of a theme I’ve noticed: disabled person != college student.

sock hands

And every day, I apparently experience what it’s like to have diabetic neuropathy in my feet.

So I stood up. And I left.

The next day I spoke with the professor. I spoke with some of my classmates. The consensus appears to be that I was very rude to have left the room right during their presentation. I was informed that although it was understandable why it would have upset me (though I don’t think it was understood) to be asked to stand, put socks on my hands and pretend to have a disability that I actually have, I needed to learn to control my emotions, and to consider how this was “the only way” my classmates would ever gain any insight into what it’s like to have fine motor deficits.
No. Sorry, not sorry, abso-fucking-lutely no.

I am standing in front of you, saying that I have had both the experience of not having neuropathy, and the experience of having it. I am telling you, unequivocally, that putting socks on your hands and trying to button a shirt does not give you any insight into what it’s like to have that problem, anymore than sitting in a wheelchair and then trying to climb stairs gives you insight into the experience of being paralyzed. The demonstration was foundationally flawed.

If it had been up to me, I would have instead had everyone try to solve a patience game. Patience games are small plastic cubes with metal balls in them. The goal of the game is to get all the balls in the little slots. They would have to solve the game while being timed and yelled at.


By forcing the students to confront their own fine motor deficits, which are not considered deficits because no one expects them to have that level of control, they might actually get an idea of why it would be difficult for a person with neuropathy – and why it is a difficulty that would not be easily resolved by getting used to having socks over their hands. The goal would be to get them to question their assumption that by dint of being able-bodied, they can have insight into the experience of a person with a disability just by making things marginally more difficult for themselves.

What is more difficult is imagining how to challenge their able-bodied-privileged assumption that I owe them compassion that is not afforded to me. That I must understand that they have no other way of knowing what it’s like. That they can have direct experience of ‘what it’s like,’ but my explicit statement that “this is actually not at all what it’s like” is completely irrelevant and a product not of my dual experience, but of my failure to understand their experience of not understanding me.

It’s not unlike other kinds of privilege. How many of us have had well-meaning theists patiently explain that theists have a deep commitment to the truth of their religion, and therefore just can’t possibly stand to hear us say it’s not true? (Yet the reverse is never considered). How many of us have had well-meaning straight allies tell us that they are fine with our sexuality, but we should keep it private and not hit on them? (Yet again, the reverse is never considered). How many of us as women have had (straight) men explain that women’s outfits are just too revealing or tempting sometimes and it can be so distracting? (Yet the reverse, once more, is not even discussed).

So that’s why it is important, when crafting activities to encourage empathy, we focus on activities that actually encourage empathy. And sometimes the only way to do that, is to challenge a person’s assumptions about themselves, and get them to not put themselves in a disabled person’s chair, but to see the ways they get to just assume the world will be set up with their needs and abilities in mind. It’s one thing to be ok with the gays “as long as they don’t flaunt it,” and another to question your own sexuality and your own sense of entitlement to be publicly romantic. It’s one thing to support the rights of people with disabilities, but another to confront how many accommodations you get (e.g., lights in a building are accommodations for people who navigate with their vision, chairs at a restaurant are accommodations for people who don’t use wheelchairs) as a QUOTE UNQUOTE (and temporarily) able-bodied person.

As they say: Nothing about us without us.

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Yessenia is a graduate student studying to be a speech therapist with an emphasis on traumatic brain injuries. She spends far too much time correcting the wrong people on the internet, lifting heavy things and training her cats. She's a proud internet atheist and trolls only for the greater good.

1 Comment

  1. November 7, 2013 at 10:42 am —

    Thanks for this post. I have a family member with CP, and I appreciate you pointing out that good intentions shouldn’t give people a free pass.

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