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“Aww bless her, I thought I had it bad” - Sympathy and Disability

HelenMcLHelenMcL Posts: 3Member Whisperer

Helen is a 21 year old student at University of Warwick, wheelchair and walking frame user and owner of the Facebook blog page Disabilityawarenessblogger. Today she talks to us about sympathy and disability.

I was sat in a Dr’s waiting room with my mum recently, when a lady came and sat down opposite us. She glanced at me and my walking frame parked in front of my seat once, and turned to my mum to say, “Aww bless her, I thought I had it bad”. This wasn’t somebody who knew anything about my life or me as a person, yet a sympathetic judgement came within a minute. And this woman isn’t alone in jumping to the conclusion that because I have an impairment, things must be bad for me. 

As somebody who uses a walking frame or wheelchair, these kind of conversations with strangers, or from strangers about me, are nowhere near a rarity. Whether it’s a film presenting a happy ending for a disabled person as a cure, the presentation of disability as unlucky or bad fate, or the lack of representation of disabled people as people living with jobs, families, friends and all kinds of experiences, it’s easy to see why there are so many preconceived ideas about disability.

woman in wheelchair smiling

Yes, my disability is part of me and who I am. But, that has a very different meaning to what that lady thought and how disability is so often presented. I’m not unlucky or struck by a cruel twist of fate. I’m not saying it’s without its challenges; it’s the frustration when there’s no ramp or disabled toilet. It’s dealing with judgements and the impact of these when it comes to things like job applications. It’s experiencing social barriers.

But, it’s also added so many good things to my life. It’s my favourite hobby, wheelchair dance. It’s part of my determined character. It’s leading an active lifestyle thanks to assistive technology like wheelchairs and walking frames. It’s my passion to raise awareness and create social change. I wouldn’t be the same person without it and it’s given me so many experiences. Being disabled is part of my experiences, but there is more to my life than a diagnosis. 

woman smiling to camera

One of my favourite quotes is;

 'There is no greater disability in society, than the inability to see a person as more' Robert M. Hensel 

I’m a 21 year old woman at university, who’s been on a year abroad. I enjoy catching up with friends over coffee, watching too many episodes of a series in one go and spending too much time on social media. It’s this reality of disability that I wish was shown more often; people experiencing life with an impairment, not despite of it.  Would I change my impairment if I could? No. It does sometimes mean approaching things differently, but different is just that – different. Not better, not worse.

What are your experiences of the perceptions of disability? What do you think about the presentation of disability? Tell us about your experiences of sympathy and disability.


  • thespicemanthespiceman Posts: 3,184Member, Community champion Brian Blessed
    edited February 2018
    Hello @HelenMcL Welcome pleased to meet you.  Thank you for writing an interesting post.  This is the problem is it not how are we perceived and seen by others.  We are judged too much and feel regarded by society who do not understand us as a community.  Being an older gentleman I can see and still recall the attitude of others when I was in school and in childhood.  Those were the days where some one like myself was the subject of too many enquiries about my disability.  Born with a genetic condition effecting hands , feet hearing, eyesight.  I was told by teachers you are a special young man in patronising condersending tones.  Remember this was the late sixties and early middle seventies.  It was different then has anything changed?  Made to stick out like a sore thumb.  I did not want any of this.  Made worse by keep away and at home attitudes from my mother.  I want to join in be me I am not having this.  So it went on till I met others like myself.  Being from a small village I found others like me and beyond.  Now I can relate to them they are like me I hollered at my mother.    Life for me was tough encountered the struggles and strife fought against people all the time.  It is great to share your story but there will always be the questions from people can you do this?  How can you be believed that you can attain and have the tools, knowledge to do the job.  These were the questions fired to me all my life.  I can have a fantastic CV working knowledge and all the qualifications in the world to give a start in life.  They will be always some one who sees you as different and tries instead of treating you as the same .  Will discriminate you and feel you as not part of society.  That is the truth and it does hurt and it stings all the time.  As also for sympathy I get the comments as I have said it is mainly in a way that I feel undervalued.  Worse one for me was I was a new patient in a doctors surgery and when he had me front of the team showing them my feet and hands.  In reply I got some comments of sympathy especially from a member of the team near me.  I did not want that.  No one wants sympathy for their disability do they.  I know I do not.  I just want to be recognised for what I am my talents, skills, my wit, humour.  Be me my knowledge and respectability from society out there.  Not be pointed at stared at feel to fit in.  One final point I was asked a long time ago to do a talk about me .  How my disability effects my life and daily living in front of school children.  Got all the questions like I have said. I did it because I thought it would make a difference.  Got some reaction but nothing really changed.  So I hope understand the problem I hope and pray and wish you all the best.  Nice to talk to you.
  • MarkmywordsMarkmywords Posts: 363Member Chatterbox
    It's nice to hear a of a disabled person who isn't suffering because of it for a change.

    It has made me think though; I have never experienced any sympathy for being disabled. An occasional bit of consideration yes, even at work, but not sympathy. Perhaps invisible disabilities are treated differently even after being explained.

    Disabled peoples' lives span a far greater range of experiences than those who are not.
    The non-disabled will never understand this, nor would they want to.

  • HelenMcLHelenMcL Posts: 3Member Whisperer
    @thespiceman @Markmywords thank you for your comments. It's always interesting to hear other people's experiences. I think you're right that there is a lot based on people's perceptions of disability and what that means and I also think the idea about experiences of sympathy with 'invisible' and 'visible' disabilities is an interesting one to explore.
  • TopkittenTopkitten Posts: 890Member Chatterbox
    It always pleases me when I hear of people coping well with their disabilities, exploring their limits and achieving something. Unfortunately not all of us are so lucky.

    Many times I have come to terms with the bubble I live in and find something that gives me hope only for the bubble to inevitably shrink again and what I could do Is now outside that bubble and become impossible. I have never had the time to fully come to terms with my disability because my disability takes things away too often. There is no sense of accomplishment for managing something simple. Too many people suffer progressive disabilities and all too often we ARE our disability.

    I am pleased that that at least some do well.

    I am here to kick ass and chew bubblegum... and I am all out of bubblegum -- They Live 80 something cult film.
  • thespicemanthespiceman Posts: 3,184Member, Community champion Brian Blessed
    Hello @HelenMcL ; Thank you for replying and comments. Please can I add the sympathy of disability I had a friend a long a go who was in a wheel chair who shall we say courted sympathy about her disability.  I used to be with her meeting for meals and chats and just be there for her.  She lived with her parents who were marvellous and great in support.  Problem was this playing on her disability for sympathy towards those who did not understand or ignorant of her attitude.  This used to annoy me and feel that she was using people to get what she wants.  I had other disabled friends who were in wheelchairs and often be critical for her ways.  Often me caught in the middle of arguments.  Simple day to day things would be fetch and carry this and that.  Can not do this because I am in this wheelchair to other people at the next table.  He is my little valet and used to annoy the hell out of the staff because of this way with people..  Yet other wheelchair users would just do it.  If they wanted help would ask me.  Got the sympathy vote then from others.  I ended up the end of the remarks from others in the café.  Why can you not help you friend.?  You are not a nice man.  Well I used to say if she wants to order or go to the queue can do this.  I have a disability too you know.  My other wheelchair friends used to come to café meet me and then queue up and order then come back.  If the lady says I bring it over will do it.  This friend would arrive pick up menu can I have this and that can you order it for me and pay it.  Give you the money.  Sometimes be late and have ordering and eating my meal  Then I would have to say why can not you do that not many people in queue.  The looks and amazement from my other wheelchair friends I can see it now.  That is what happened of course things do change people move away.  I gave up my friendship with this lady because I told the truth and honesty does hurt.  Besides I had to it was becoming embarrassing for me.  So we stopped speaking.  It is a shame but I just thought and tell you of my experiences.  Also always be there for anybody in a wheelchair.  I always be understanding, patient and tolerant. Nice to talk to you.
  • rosscolfcrosscolfc Posts: 28Member Whisperer
    Some people struggle with the difference between sympathy and empathy. 

  • [Deleted User][Deleted User] Posts: 692 Listener
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  • TopkittenTopkitten Posts: 890Member Chatterbox
    I have never been a fan of sympathy. All too often it is useless to the receiver and is only given when people do not know how to offer real help. I would never rebuff it either f2f or in any other manner because, for some, it is meant well. My children have never really understood this about me and either offer sympathy or try to do everything for me. These extremes are not helpful and I have tried to explain but the actions are so ingrained in society now that they have no real appreciation of how their actions are perceived by the recipient. I often wish that people would ask me what I would like from them rather than assuming what I need.

    However, there are those that thrive on sympathy and use it almost like a weapon. I find this action both saddening and annoying and will point it out immediately. Often though, such an action is not appreciated.

    I am here to kick ass and chew bubblegum... and I am all out of bubblegum -- They Live 80 something cult film.
  • HelenMcLHelenMcL Posts: 3Member Whisperer
    Thanks for sharing your experiences and opinions :)
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