Can I Have My Shoes Back, Please? Avoiding the “Even-I” Empathy Trap

I took a semester-abroad trip to Melbourne, Australia 12 years ago. Early in the trip, I went on a biking tour of the city. They set me up to ride a tandem bike captained by the young, attractive Aussie man leading our group (great inclusion there!) Around mid-morning we stopped for a bathroom break. When I returned to my bike, the captain commented, “I don’t know how you do it! If I were in your situation, I would probably pee on the floor!”

After the initial shock of his remark faded, I found it amusing. He and I, being different sexes,, have completely different methods of handling urination (and my way doesn’t involve aiming anything). But he must have thought that my experience would be just like his, except without sight.

So, it was just a silly comment. No harm done, right? But a similar pattern of judgment can lead to unintentional exclusion of disabled people. Consider comments such as:

-It’s not safe for you to be working here. There’re so many obstacles, even I bump into stuff a lot, and I can see!

-This place would be too overwhelming for someone with autism. It’s overwhelming even for me.

-Even I have trouble keeping up with my kids sometimes, and I don’t have a disability. I’m not comfortable letting you watch them.

-Of course someone with chronic migraines can get a job. When I have headaches, I can just work through it.

-If I were [insert disability/illness label] I’d want to kill myself.

The common thread in all of these statements is that a perceiver compares their own imagined experience of disability to the real experience of a disabled person. Humans often spontaneously imagine what it might be like to live another’s experience by mentally “walking in the shoes” of another. We do this without even trying, but such attempts at empathy are also encouraged by our culture. Because disability is a foreign experience to many nondisabled people, it is common for a nondisabled person to spontaneously start thinking about what life with disability would be like for them. But, this tendency can lead to trouble. Not only is there rampant misinformation about how people live with disabilities, but in making these judgments, perceivers tend to neglect other attributes that may differ between themselves and the disabled individual. In my opening example, the bike captain neglected how sex differences would make his hypothetical experience as a blind man different from my actual experience as a blind woman. In other instances, a nondisabled person who has low athletic ability may wrongly assume that a disabled person would automatically have even lower athletic ability. But, due to natural human variation in innate strengths as well as preference and practice, some disabled individuals are more athletically inclined and capable than their nondisabled counterparts.

Because nondisabled people often fear becoming disabled themselves, “walking in the shoes” of a disabled person often leads to an over-exaggerated perception of the challenges of disability, even to the point of some nondisabled people believing that they would rather be dead than disabled. This tendency can impact how disabled people are evaluated as potential employees, parents, romantic partners, and participants in community life. However, sometimes the bias can swing the other way, as in the example of chronic migraines. Someone may dismiss the experience of a person with a chronic illness based on their own brief, relatively inconsequential episode of acute illness. Or, people may hyperfocus on the wrong issues at the expense of more important concerns. For example, many sighted people worry unnecessarily about my safety if I am navigating a room with obstacles on the floor, likely due to their own experiences navigating in the dark, when in fact I have never once harmed myself tripping over a power cord or a throw rug. Yet they may under-appreciate how overhead objects or loud street noise (including their chatter when I’m at a street corner) can impact my ability to travel safely.

Furthermore, disability is not always linear. A disabled person may be more skilled than a nondisabled person in some areas, but have marked impairments in others. For someone with a sensory processing difference, certain sounds that seem loud to a neurotypical person may be tolerable or even enjoyable, whereas other sounds, seemingly less problematic from a neurotypical vantage point, may be intolerable. Or, a person’s ability to cope with a given demand may vary from day to day, or from setting to setting. All of these things can get lost when we momentarily try to imagine what it is like to have a particular disability.

How do we break out of the problematic pattern of “even I” or “if I were you…?” It’s counterintuitive, but we may understand disability better when we step out of a disabled person’s “shoes.” Social psychologists have distinguished between “imagine-self” and “imagine-other” modes of perspective-taking. When we try to understand another person’s point of view, we can imagine it through our own eyes, by walking in their shoes (“imagine-self perspective-taking”). Or, we can simply imagine how the other is feeling from a third-person perspective, without involving ourselves at all (“imagine-other perspective-taking”). In fact, during early experiments testing the effects of imagine-other perspective-taking, participants were directed to “forget yourself” when watching a video, instructed instead to simply focus on the feelings of the actors.

Disability wisdom involves having the humility to recognize what we don’t know. We can’t accurately predict how a new disability would impact us. It is even harder to predict how another person, with a completely different set of characteristics, is impacted by a disability. Nor is the impact a constant across individuals, time, and place.

Instead of trying to imagine what a disability is like for someone, maybe we can take a step back. We can make an effort to be present with the individual, observe how they function, and most importantly, listen to their communications (verbal and nonverbal) about their strengths and challenges. This might mean, instead of using “even-I” as a basis for deciding accommodations, we listen to the actual needs and preferences expressed by disabled people. It means listening on the individual level as well as to the collective when we decide which policies to support. When we work across ability lines, “forgetting ourselves” may not come easily, but it may be a necessary step to true understanding.

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