Just about everywhere I look it seems human relations are growing further apart. This is what drives me to learn about empathy, to be empowered so that I might, in some small way, help create a more connected society. I feel that we (myself included) all too quickly jump to conclusions and judgements on others, when in fact we know little or nothing about that person. At the root of me undertaking empathy training is a desire to overcome personal biased perceptions and stereotypes of people facing sensory disability. As I have never had to live with a disability here is a unique opportunity to take steps in the right direction towards empathy.
I saw Julie* for the first time a few months ago at a departmental meeting. During the meeting there were two ladies taking turns translating the conversation into sign language. For many years I had been curious about the use of sign language. I was so fascinated that I approached the translators after the meeting. It turns out that both learnt sign as their first language because both parents were deaf. To find out more they suggested I talk to Julie. She seemed a nice, friendly person so perhaps with a little effort I would make a new friend and learn about sign.
*Name altered for privacy
As months passed since that first casual chat, our paths crossed a few time but never went much beyond a friendly smile of familiarity. All that changed after I attended the first few empathy workshops, where I was inspired to initiate a more meaningful conversation with Julie. Even the thought of approaching her made me nervous, so many doubts run through my mind. What if she was uncomfortable communicating with someone without sign language? What if she felt offended that I wanted to learn more about her? Putting all this aside I was resolved to challenge my assumptions and go outside my comfort zone. As they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained!
Unsure of a suitable way to get started, I approached her in the office with a piece of paper asking “How are you. Are you busy at the moment?”. She replied back to me with a smile and thumbs up. So I placed another piece of paper asking her if she would like to grab lunch together. She was keen! After a short written conversation we agreed on a day and time. Excited!
Prior to our lunch I spent some time reflecting on my intentions and perceptions, as key elements of understanding how empathy works. I realised that underlying my general interest in sign language, an aspect of my intention is to understand how sensory disability affects everyday life. In my own mind, when I encounter people with disability, I can’t help but to feel sympathy for them. Seeing Julie in the office, it seems less as a disability, and more as a part of life. It’s super inspiring and I really hoped to learn more. In addition, the empathy experiences workshop helped me understand that my perceptions, constructed by assumptions, media and somewhat similar experiences in my life, are fundamental in how I understand Julie’s situation. After mapping my perceptions visually I realised my assumptions that someone with a sensory disability lived a difficult life and would spend most time at home, avoiding human interaction (see below image). I assumed they would probably require someone to accompany them wherever they go. I think this perception was founded in various ideas I was exposed to growing up. My childhood was in a country where there is limited resources for those with a disability, reducing many affected people to limited roles in society. Accentuating this upbringing, I can recall media (e.g. movies and articles) where people with disability are portrayed negatively in struggling situations. These experiences would be the foundation of my automatic 'sympathy' response to people with disability.
It was time to break these stereotypes and connect for real. With lunch and good conversation as the perfect antidote!
One sunny day Julie and I shared a wonderful lunch in the park. I am so glad that I took the step forward and sought a deeper connection with Julie. We had an awesome conversation, starting by lip reading each other. This was interesting and quite challenging, especially for me as a first timer! After a while the conversation moved on to paper. Quickly, without realising it we had 7 pages worth of conversation! I was able to learn so much, some things that I could never have imagined.
Completely blowing away the useless stereotypes in my mind, Julie works full time in the office, teaches Auslan (Australian Sign Language) on weekends as well as private tutoring. She lives a 15 minute bus ride away from work though usually takes her silver scooter. She enjoys eating sushi and loves chocolate (who doesn’t!) and other sweets with tea when she gets bored in the afternoons at work. Her hobbies include travelling, running and swimming. She tries to go on regular weekend getaways to nearby places like Central Coast and Blue Mountains. She loves to socialise and does various social activities with friends such as deaf trivia nights. Far from being disconnected from society, Julie lives life to the fullest with her disability being a small part of her identity, not her defining feature.
Catching up with Julie was such a rewarding experience, which I felt was truly mutual. As I learnt in our workshops, empathy requires a two-way exchange. Thinking back to our time together I could sense we had a very equal connection. We interacted on an affective level, where our body language and energy were mirrored. Going beyond this, I realised that we share many hobbies and find joys in similar things. She was quite surprised when I told her I can speak 7 languages, which then triggered her encouragement to learn sign language. She even showed me different apps for Auslan. I always wanted to learn sign language but never had the chance to do it. But after meeting Julie I will definitely take steps towards this ambition.
Despite learning and sharing so much, I still felt it difficult to begin grasping what Julie's perspective might be like. Following our lunch date I was inspired to try some form of immersion experience, to put myself in the shoes of someone deaf and mute. To somewhat replicate the experience I decided to spend the entire day with earplugs in my ears and not talking. I felt this to be a big challenge since a large part of my workday requires talking to people. To deal with the situation I wrote on a piece of paper what I was doing, requested everyone to assist by writing his or her note on paper or email (see image below). During the day I went to a supermarket and couldn’t locate an item on my shopping list. With immersion restrictions I had to seek help by tapping on the store assistant’s shoulder and showing a question on my phone. During the day I found everyone to be very accommodating and assisted me with kindness.
Throughout this experience, I found the most difficult aspect was quite surprising. Expecting it to be difficult to get around town and to do my day job, navigating these situations was quite straight forward. I found the greatest challenge was feeling excluded when people around me had conversations that I couldn’t contribute to it. My personal frustration arose when people failed to make a small allowance to enable my participation. Sometimes people would consciously include me by writing, other times they would forget as it’s not a natural situation for them, leaving me excluded and feeling distant. In addition, possibly the most unexpected moment came at the end of the day when I removed the earplugs, just before leaving the office. The level of noise was almost overwhelming, so much of it background stuff that I wouldn’t usually notice. It makes me wonder how much of our consciousness is consumed by unnecessary noise.
Although I could never fully understand what it’s like dealing with a sensory disability, undertaking this immersion was a unique experience. Combining these experiences with guided personal reflection I can see disability with an entirely new appreciation. Not only are disabilities not always completely disabling, when one sense is lowered it certainly heightens others. It’s a different way of experiencing the world, not necessarily a worse or even disadvantaged position. Just different. I feel incredibly thankful for this perspective and especially happy to have connected with Julie. I look forward to many more lunches and hopefully conversations in sign!
Rabia recently graduated with Master of Business Administration from University of Technology Sydney