Handicapped

A joke:

An autistic woman walks into a bar and scans the room without making eye contact with anyone.  She sees a paraplegic wheel himself up to the counter to order a beer, and in a too-loud voice she laments, to no one in particular, "I feel sorry for that man. It must be so hard being handicapped."

Ha ha ha! Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

In the real story, Sam and I were walking down the street and the paraplegic was propelling himself down the opposite sidewalk, but Sam's comment is verbatim. I suggested to her that the man looked pretty well-adjusted to life without walking and she need not pity him. Inside myself, though, I was laughing at the absurdity of my autistic child worrying about someone with a disability. I wanted to tell her that the man might feel just as sorry for her as she felt for him. He understands how to navigate life well without functioning legs, but he probably couldn't imagine surviving without a strong theory of mind or contextual awareness.

Feeling bad for other people is an experience fraught with hubris. Pilots may not understand how someone with acrophobia could lead a full, satisfying life without experiencing the joy of flying, and intrepid travelers may pity the country bumpkin who never leaves her hometown. But none of us pity human beings for lacking a tapetum lucidum, the part of a cat's eye that enables it to see well at night, even though a cat might think such a handicap compromises one's quality of life mightily. Judging others as "challenged" for lacking exactly the attributes we possess, whatever they may be, seems to be a universal tendency. When we realize that other people are judging our deficiencies just as we are judging theirs, however, we may want to stop and question our own subtle arrogance. My guess is that the arrogance doesn't stem from bigotry or any evil intent. Rather, I think it comes from our natural insecurity about our place in the world coupled with an innate lack of imagination. We know what we know and have trouble imagining what we do not. We are often told to put ourselves into other people's shoes in order to develop compassion for them, and I fully support that effort. I do, though, think we need to add a healthy dose of humility and acknowledge that we never have, and never can, live their experience when we jump into their present without having lived their past.