I recently came across a TED talk presented by Amy Oulton back in 2018. Amy is a disability inclusion speaker, workshop provider, as well as a consultant and writer. When Amy was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome—a rare genetic condition that causes weak tissues, joint dislocation, chronic pain and fatigue—she mentioned that she noticed something weird.
One time when she was at a nightclub, one of her friends came up to her and said, “It is amazing to see you in the club!” Initially, that sounded like a compliment—because the nightclub is rather inaccessible. But then she realised that people were actually showing her sympathy. They “didn’t see people like her out having fun very often.” Her friends were basically worried that she wouldn’t be able to fit in.
Amy mentioned that there were countless times where she hoped people would show her empathy instead of sympathy. Comments like those made her feel either hyper visible or completely invisible as a person.
When people projected their ideas of what they think disability is on to Amy, she mentioned that they reduced her to a selection of stereotypes based on the things that they presumed about her life. Quoting Amy, “My life and my disability is individual to me, and there are so many things you wouldn’t know about me just from looking at my wheelchair.”
From this short story, what we can learn about sympathy and empathy is that a sympathetic person tends to consider how they themselves would feel if the same turn of events happened to them. On the other hand, being empathetic means having the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, and personally relate to what they are experiencing.
We are now aware that instead of showing pity out of sympathy, empathy is what we really need to practice. The important question now is, “how can we practice empathy?” This is the first part of a series of articles on empathy. The next article will be up next Friday, so watch this space!
For more information about our award-winning, globally-recognised empathy workshop, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or WhatsApp +60182968828. Photo by Romain Virtuel on Unsplash.