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Empathy By Way of Handicap Ramps

ONE WEEK. That’s how much longer I have until my foot surgery recovery hits the weight-bearing milestone. How long will my empathy for fellow humans with disabilities or handicaps last? FOR-EH-VER.

For the past five weeks, I have gotten from Point A to Point B via crutches or knee scooter. Each day has been a challenge with successes as well as sweat-inducing challenges. (My worst undertaking each day has been to crutch up our stairs in the morning… I keep feeling like one moment of imbalance will result in my death down the steps.)

Through all of this, I’ve experienced an existence which I had only before observed. Sure, I’ve moved out of the way on the bus for a person in a wheelchair or with a cane, or I’ve offered to hold a door open longer to help them pass through. But seeing and knowing are not the same thing.

I mentioned empathy earlier in this post, and that’s where I feel this experience has brought me the farthest. As a marketer and communicator, exercising my empathy muscle is one of the most important ways I stay good at my job. Throughout this last month, I’ve drawn many correlations between what I experienced with my temporary disability and what our customers experience when we lack empathy.

Read on and see if any of these ring true for you:

You can’t assume you know the other person’s story.

Climbing out of the car with crutches
Every morning, getting out of the car and ready to roll to work was a challenge.

By just glancing at me, you can immediately tell something happened to my foot. I’m carting it around on a knee scooter, it’s bound up with an ace wrap and a black boot of sorts, and I’m obviously favoring it with every motion.

But not every person living with a handicap is as obvious. In my commutes I often crossed paths with another woman who walked with a cane. She would join me on the handicap ramps rather than trying to climb up train steps. As we began to chat, she shared with me that, in spite of there being zero cartilage between her femur and tibia/fibula bones, many people assume that she should be able to handle a few steps. Even though she attends physical therapy and takes painkillers to alleviate what her body experiences, she has heard fellow passengers on the train grumble and opine as to whether she really needs to use the handicap area.

I’ll confess: when I used to see someone without a wheelchair make their way onto public transportation using the ramp, I would wonder if they just weren’t putting in the effort to climb the steps. My newfound friend on the train woke me to the fact that just because I don’t see someone’s ailment doesn’t mean they don’t live with one every moment.

In the future, I’ll never again judge someone for using the accessibility features in our world. I can open my mind to a world of possibilities rather than a mistaken assumption.

Your offer to help is about them, not about you.

The first week of my limited mobility was all about finding the ways I could move with assistance that was already built-in: ramps, automatic doors, smooth terrain, etc.

hill up Colfax from Civic Center Station
Throughout March, I’d wear sleeveless tops because of this hill. Two blocks of sheer exertion to make it to the top… and I didn’t want anyone to help me.

I also knew I’d be relying on the kindness and patience of others… and I have to tell you that my ego and self-sufficient tendencies mightily roiled at the idea. Since I was young, I have always been proud of my independence and ability to “be strong” my way through any difficulty.

I found myself working in ways to thank others for their offers to help while assuring them I didn’t need it. The first few times I could tell that my refusal of assistance was taken badly, so I worked on putting more sincerity and gratitude into my vernacular. My challenge was to try to see the person’s good intentions without internalizing them as a knock on my independence. I have found myself often timing my approaches to certain doors or ramps when no one is nearby who will offer a lending hand right when I’m about to accomplish the obstacle at hand.

Does this make a helpful offer bad or unwelcome? Not at all. But I know going forward that I won’t take it personally if my offer to assist is declined, because the other person may have it entirely under control without my help. They may also have other reasons why my help isn’t needed.

Happy endings aren’t for sure.

I mentioned that I have one more week until I can start trying to walk with two feet instead of one. My recovery is on pace and my left foot should eventually heal fully and allow me to walk without assistance (and in nice shoes once again!).

There are so, so many who don’t share this positive outcome. Their pain is chronic, their ailment has no turnaround cure, or their treatment options are limited (if existent at all). While I can chuck my crutches to the storage space in a week, they’re facing months and years of continued struggle and judgment just for making their way through each day.

As someone who experienced a temporary setback to my mobility, I can’t tell you enough how much I look forward to getting things “back to normal.” But that’s my normal. “Normal” for many other people means always using ramps, always needing handicap-accessible features, and always facing people around whom they must navigate.

If you aren’t accessible… really???

This was my biggest revelation: accessibility is important. It can make or break the ability for someone to relieve their bladder, carry out plans, gather with friends, perform a job, and generally live life.

Handicap ramp at light rail station
Each Light Rail station has a handicap ramp. I often had company on my daily commute.

I have been overall very impressed with the accessibility features in Denver. The Light Rail system has handicap ramps at each stop, from the parking area all the way to the front door of the train. Drivers of trains and buses readily helped me and other passengers get on and off safely, as well as reminding other passengers that the handicap area needs to be vacated for passengers needing assistance. Buildings like the Pepsi Center and state buildings are equipped with automatic doors and handicap-accessible restrooms.

Granted, I did run into some exceptions. A restaurant in the Highlands I visited with coworkers during my first week of recovery offered several sets of steps for me to traverse just to get into the door on a snowy evening. A public transportation driver would occasionally show impatience with having to lower and raise the ramp for me to enter. Even fellow Denverites would give attitude, or zero signs of yielding space, when I rolled on needing to find somewhere for my seat and my knee scooter.

Empathy matters. It’s what makes us human. Because whether you carry yourself around with a fully capable body or a fairly capable apparatus, you deserve to be treated with respect. You deserve to be seen and heard. You deserve empathy.

I know these recent experiences exercised my empathy and will continue to do so. How do you maintain your empathy for others, and how does it make you better at what you do?