In search of compassion for wheelchair users: You could be me
I've been a nomad of sorts for more than half my life — first as a military officer, then as a military spouse, and now as a full-time travel writer. I've moved over a dozen times and visited almost 50 countries. I've seen how people from different cultures regard each other, and as a fulltime wheelchair user, this has almost always been a positive experience for me abroad. However, as an American, I am disheartened more than ever by the diminishing levels of compassion and empathy in my own country.
In the past year, I've had the privilege of writing about issues important to wheelchair users, including things like accessible parking, transportation and travel. People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States, but we are also the most invisible. I've never been afraid to speak up about the challenges we face, or to demand changes that will grant us the equal rights we deserve as human beings.
I've been on the receiving end of many emotions as a wheelchair user, from pity to curiosity to disdain. But in all the places I've visited around the world, I have never experienced such a lack of compassion or understanding, or even simple kindness ,asI have here at home. My calls for equal access have been met with accusations of entitlement. My complaints over significant physical obstacles have been met with the label of “whiner.” My explanations over why solutions created by non-disabled people don't work have been met with the advice to “suck it up.”
On the surface, it may sound like this is just about wheelchair users or people with disabilities, but I assure you it's not. This widespread lack of empathy can be found everywhere in the U.S., where one group of people either has no interest in or refuses to acknowledge another group's hardship. Admittedly, it's difficult to walk a mile in other people's shoes when they are of a different race or gender or physical makeup than you. But why are we having such a hard time even believing each other's hardships, let alone trying to understand them?
This attitude is particularly striking to me because of all minority group situations, being in a wheelchair is the only radical change that can happen to absolutely anyone. A white man may find it hard to empathize with a black woman because he will never be her. However, anyone who views wheelchair users as a burden on businesses or society could end up rolling in those shoes someday. You could be me someday. Please don't wait for that day to start being compassionate, empathetic or kind. Sylvia Longmire of Sanford is an advocate for accessibility and runs a travel agency mostly catering to those with limited mobility. This is her final column as a member of the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Advisory Board.