“I’ll be Fine”: Empathy through Experience

The cashier’s eyes widen as a faint, embarrassed smile blossoms. Even though she won’t ask the obvious question, she can’t stop looking. Outside, the guy passing us on the sidewalk rubbernecks for a full view. And the two women in the minivan in the lane by the walk are simultaneously so disgusted and relieved, it’s comical. Angered, my teenage daughter threatens to educate these people on the social impoliteness of staring.

In my dark fantasy story, “Eyes of a Child,” a father effectively imprisons his physically deformed daughter to spare her negative public reaction and saccharine sympathy. As a father, I understood during the writing the character’s desire to protect his child, albeit misguided, but I could not genuinely empathize with the daughter because I’d never experienced a “disability” and the public reaction to it. Then, a few days ago, I had a bicycle accident.

I’ve been riding the same bike/pedestrian course for months, day after day. Usually, extraordinary evens are limited to one or two auto drivers who fail to yield for pedestrian/bike crossings. One part of the route descends a shallow hill with a curve at the bottom. I’ve had no problem with it in the past. But heavy rain had fallen overnight, spreading a thin layer of clay mud across the asphalt path, mud that I saw too late. The bicycle slued from under me into grass and mud beside the path, and I hit the asphalt path that took chunks of flesh from my knuckles, arms and elbows, and a wide swath from below my left knee. My head and face hit first. The impact destroyed my helmet, but it protected my skull. My nose, left cheek, and chin didn’t fare as well, slamming into the asphalt and scraping across before I began to roll.

Though aching and bloody, the wounds on my hands, arms, and legs were no worse than any I’d suffered before, only more in number than usual. My face also burned, but I had no way of examining it, so I knocked mud off the bike, mounted, and cycled the four miles home, noting a few stares along the way, chalking them up to my bloody-leg, muddy appearance. Back home, a mirror revealed why my face burned and why people had been staring. The impact had scraped the skin off my left cheek, across my nose, above my upper lip, and off my chin. My left eye was bruised and puffy, and my cheek and chin had begun to swell. I showered, cleaned the wounds, and bandaged those that could be covered, but those on my face could not be bandaged effectively.

Injured or not, I still had work to do. My first stop was to drop a package for shipment. The clerk’s initial look of fear as I came up to the counter nearly made me laugh. “A bike accident,” I said. She nodded eagerly, relief flooding her face. “Oh, I’ve had that happen, too. Just keep it clean, and you’ll be fine.” Yes, I’d be fine, but what about people like the daughter in my story, people with permanent disabilities, people who will never be fine in the public view?

The subject of disabilities is saturated with ignorance and media misrepresentation. In movies and literature, blindness is often equated with stupidity, disability with inability, deformity with evil. A recent Louis Harris poll found that nearly 60 percent of Americans are embarrassed and uncomfortable around people with disabilities, and almost half are actually afraid of people with disabilities. In “Eyes of a Child,” the father fears public disgust and feigned sympathy so much that he never allows his daughter out of the house. If I were writing the story today, I would better empathize with the girl’s character and more deeply understand the father’s love for his daughter and his fear and loathing of the public.

My injuries will heal and leave only the slightest of scars on my cheek and chin. They have not provided me with complete understanding of the social challenges faced by persons with disabilities, but the reactions of others to my appearance have provided me with a glimpse of the daily battle. In the past couple of days, I’ve considered wearing a cap and keeping my head bowed to spare others the sight of my hamburger patty face, but, more, to spare me of their reactions. But I won’t. We all can learn something important without the cap.

Back at the store, my daughter and I cross the lane to our car, get in. Another car pulls into the space facing us. The guy behind the wheel narrows his eyes at me until he realizes I’m glaring directly back at him. He fumbles with the door, gets out, and hurries into the store. I glance over at my daughter, and we laugh. The guy doesn’t know I’ll be fine.

***

Another perspective…
by Dick Claassen

The owner of this blog, Chris Fuqua, is a good friend of mine. He recently had a bike accident and told me he really bunged up his face. As proof, he sent me a frontal photo of his face a couple of days after the accident so I would get the full impact of the damage. Ouch! Chris could walk onto the set of an action flick and wouldn’t even have to go through makeup!

Chris commented that when he appeared in public with his temporarily wounded face, his appearance drew many stares. So many stares that it made him uncomfortable. He told me he didn’t even want to appear in public until his face was healed. I was amazed by this rude behavior of strangers. I mean, this is 2010, for crying out loud. Aren’t we supposed to be enlightened by now? But as I thought about Chris’s experience, I hearkened back to the experiences of my own life when I was a kid. I’m 69, and when I was five, I contracted Polio. This would be in 1946. (Yeah, I know, loooong time ago.) People were truly ignorant back then. Polio randomly attacks and paralyzes different limbs, and all too often those of us who are hit by it end up with not only weak limbs, but muscles that won’t keep the feet up, giving the Polio survivor a peculiar slapping walk. This was me. So people stared at me when I walked. I hated to move in a group of strangers, because my funky walk was sure to draw stares.

I put up with this ignorant nonsense until I was a young adult, and I’ve gotta tell ya, that can do some serious damage to your self confidence. But then something peculiar happened: Sesame Street. Sesame Street? Yup. That program was all about tolerance. Preaching tolerance was its reason for being. We saw kids of different races as a matter of course on that show. We also saw kids in wheelchairs. And most important, those “different” kids were characters in the show along with all kinds of other “normal” kids. Sesame Street didn’t point out that little Suzie had to be in a wheelchair. Suzie simply was another normal kid on the show, and was treated as such. Now, this change in attitude among the public gawkers didn’t happen all at once, but eventually those who watched Sesame Street long enough, (and that was just about everyone of any age), finally became comfortable with those who were “different.” Without realizing it, the majority of our population, both young and old, helped by the positive influence of Sesame Street, finally saw the light and put people like me into the “normal” category. And as people became more accepting, they no longer stared at me. I seldom get stares anymore, and that’s a very nice feeling. And I give Sesame Street all the credit.

I don’t mind being physically disabled. Okay, I do mind. But not to the point of either distraction or destruction. I’ve had this body for 64 years. If I’m not comfortable with myself by now, there’s no hope. But after experiencing real courtesy from almost everyone I meet these days, I was very disappointed that someone like Chris, who simply had bumps and bruises, (okay, granted, BIG bumps and bruises), was stared at. Apparently this kind of behavior varies from one region to the other. Case in point: I live in Iowa, and never was I more proud of the people in my state than two weeks after 9(11). Emotion was high, and people were scared to death of anyone who even wore a beanie, let alone a hijab. One day in Wal-Mart I was about to walk out when I just happened to look behind me. There was a family of four walking into the store: a mom, dad, little brother, and big sister. They obviously were Muslim because they all wore traditional Muslim clothing. The dad and son wore trousers and shirts of their culture, and the mom and the big sister were in long abayas and hijabs. (The hijab is the veil that frames the face but doesn’t cover the face). Their attire really made them stand out in the crowd. There were many people in the store, all local white bread Protestant Iowans, and they all saw this young family. But not one person stared. Not one. Sure, there were quick and covert glances, the kind of looks one might give to any stranger. But those glances never lingered. They would simply look elsewhere and go about their business. The Muslim family was comfortable, the people around them were polite, and I felt proud to be an Iowan.

Before you conclude that none of this is any big deal, it is. It’s huge. It’s far bigger than we might suppose. The very future of our democracy hangs on tolerance. Intolerance breeds fear, and fear will tear a democracy down faster than anything else. The question is not “Is Obama a Muslim?” That question shouldn’t even be asked. What faith, (or no faith), our leaders embrace is none of our business. It really isn’t. Personal faith or no faith is a private matter. Sesame Street was extremely successful in acclimating us all to those who were “different” from us. That show increased our level of tolerance. We might have to hope for an adult version of Sesame Street that can instill and infuse tolerance into the heads of those who insist on infusing fear and violence into the minds of those who should know better. Let’s all get down on our little knees and pray tonight for the adult version of Sesame Street before it’s too late. Even if you have no personal faith, pray anyway.

–Dick Claassen is a retired math and chemistry teacher, a guitarist, banjoist, professional of the Native American flute, and author of numerous romance novels, textbooks, magazine articles, and several books on Native American flute instruction and technique. Please visit his website at http://playfolkinstruments.com.