Responding with empathy, not sympathy towards disabled people – Guest column by Jasmine Khanna
Our guest columnist this week is Jasmina Khanna. Jasmina is a disabled working professional based in Mumbai. In her column, she reflects upon attitudes towards disabled people in India. Jasmina says society has an attitude of sympathy towards disabled people with every accomplishment of their’s treated as extraordinary. Rather, people with disabilities are equals and should be seen as deserving the same opportunities like everyone else.
When it comes to differentiating between sympathy and empathy there is a thin line between the two. Yet both are distinctive from each other. Sympathy can be defined as showing pity to someone who is lacking something in life or has limitations. Empathy, on the other hand, can be explained as having an understanding of someone’s shortcomings. It is the ability to understand feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Instead of annotating pity out of sympathy in empathy a person is inclined with the hope to do the things through encouragement and support that he or she might not attempt to do otherwise. The reason for it may be due to their lack of confidence or having some kind of limitations.
Attitudes towards disabled people
Society at large tends to tilt towards sympathy especially in the case of a person with a disability. More often it has been perceived that even if an impaired person has the ability to be independent or has the prowess to compete in the so-called normal world. they are not given the opportunity to do the same. Even in simple circumstances of daily life one hears taunts like ‘Bechaara ladka wheelchair mein hai phir bhi bhi kaam pe jaata hai’. (Poor fellow he is in a wheelchair, but still he is going to work). ‘Bechaari ladki andhi hai phir bhi woh akele road cross kar rahi hai’. (Helpless girl despite being blind is crossing the road on her own.)
If you have watched a person with disability perform on a TV reality show, emotions of sympathy and empathy are depicted at the same time by one and all involved with the show. Be it the judges, host or audiences. Often judges are seen getting emotional and choked as if they have never seen a person with a disability perform before. These reality shows tend to glorify disability and their struggles. It is noteworthy if a person with disability is selected amongst the top contestants when it comes to the selection through audience polls in the first few episodes of the program. They typically get the maximum number of votes irrespective of deserving or not.
Invariably people swing between sympathy and empathy. Often without realising that they are sympathising, thinking they are encouraging the person with a disability. Most reality shows denote a similar sensibility. In fact, most films or any TV shows typically depict a differently abled person as an indisposed one. And if they come across a person with a disability who has gone beyond their limits the accomplishments are boasted larger than life.
Workplace attitudes towards disabled people
Even at the workplace, the attitude towards a disabled person is that of sympathy. Employers or colleagues perpetually assign less work or under-qualified work to disabled employees out of sympathy. If the work is finished by the disabled person within the given timeline and successfully, the accomplishment is praised way beyond, making it look like empathy. In reality it is sympathy.
People with disabilities need to be treated as normal human beings. People with disabilities do not require any sympathy, pity or mercy. All they require is an opportunity to live a life with dignity.
The article has been published in the blog jastalkingaloud. You can read it here.