In search of com­pas­sion for wheel­chair users: You could be me

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - OPINION - By Sylvia Long­mire Or­lando Sen­tinel Ed­i­to­rial Ad­vi­sory Board

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.

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