I think a lot about the balance of power in relationships. As a mum of three children on the spectrum, I have got many things wrong over the years – if I could start again from day one with the knowledge and experience I have now I’d do a whole lot differently, believe me! But there was one thing that I got right from the word go, and that was to give my children my total respect.
I’ve never pitied them. Of course, I show them sympathy if they’re hurt or upset, but I’ve never felt sorry for who they innately are. I feel that they are whole, in no need of fixing or improving. I teach and learn from my children in equal measure, and to me, this is the core of respect.
In the past, charity and pity have been inseperably intertwined. The donor is imbued with a sense of superiority, grandeur and righteousness. The receiver, head bowed and humble, knows their place. Pity can only ever divide us from the people that we pity, whereas empathy connects us. Pity feeds our ego, but empathy frees us of all egoic reaction. I see this as a subtle but fundamental shift in our attitude to disability.
The young people that we met at an equality and diversity conference last week were asked to volunteer information about their life goals. Their responses ranged from an ambition to cook their own meals to being a research scientist for NASA. All of these ideas were greeted with whoops of encouragement from the other young people, and helpful suggestions as to how to move towards the goal. To witness young people with disabilities supporting one another in this way was humbling for me and prompted me to think more deeply about charity vs practical, respectful support.
When we respect someone, we tend to be quieter, we listen more, we are eager to learn. We ask questions and listen attentively to the answers. When we pity, or do not particularly respect, we are lecturing, we interrupt, we dictate. We make decisions on other people’s behalf. In our society the most severe punishment, reserved for our most heinous criminals, is to take away their liberty and their right to choose. Looking at it that way, its shocking to realise that this is the way that people with disabilities have been treated for centuries in our society.
However, we can only move forwards and learn from the lessons of the past. Real change is afoot in our society. With empathy and a willingness to learn we can all grow and benefit from the subtle shift away from charity towards real respect.