Tag Archives: ableism

Ableism and Empathy

I think one of the things that commonly underlies ableism is not being able to feel empathy with ill and disabled people. People with no experience of pain can find it hard to imagine what it might be like living with pain all the time. People who are not frustrated by their bodies, or unable to predict what they might be able to do can have trouble understanding how that works for someone else. Crippling anxiety that stops you from doing things, depression that leaves you unable to function – it can be hard to empathise if you don’t know what it’s like.

Many people do better at empathy when they can see something that makes sense to them. Visible illness or injury is self announcing. If we see an awful bodily injury, we can make sense of it. The vast majority of illness and even injury doesn’t look like much if you don’t know how to interpret it. 

This all leads to the able person imagining that the person in distress is over-reacting, not trying hard enough and so forth. This results in mistreatment, bullying and the denial of essential resources. 

One of the best ways to build empathy is through the sharing of stories. The more we know about other people’s experiences, the more likely we are to be able to feel compassion for people we encounter. Seeking out other people’s stories is a good thing to do, and the internet makes it very easy. None of us can learn everything about all the things everyone else might be up against, but the process of learning about people living with disability, mental illness, neurodivergence, and bodily illness can give us some useful points of reference.