Monday, August 3, 2009

Body Does Not Equal Mind

A couple of days ago, I had a wonderful conversation in downtown Sunnyvale. I was hanging out with my son and had just wrapped up a conversation with a gentleman outside of a coffee shop. As I turned to continue back up the street, I noticed a woman in an electric wheelchair. I am not sure what condition she had, but she was very physically impaired. It appeared that she did not have the use of either leg and had lost the primary use of one of her arms. Now, she happened to be parked sideways, blocking the sidewalk. The last thing that I wanted to do was to add another burden to her by asking her politely to scoot to one side, or just by my presence, cause her to move. Austin and I made a quick foray out into the road to bypass that section of sidewalk.

It turns out that she had noticed me. When I came back onto the sidewalk she was already heading in our direction and made a polite comment about Austin. We turned and stopped to say hi. Now, I have long held that body does not equal mind. What I mean by this is that you cannot tell by a person's body what their mind is like and a damaged or pristine body do not tell you if the mind inside is damaged or pristine.

As one might imagine, this woman was one person that has been dealing with the opposite assumption for most of her life. Many people have written her off because of the fact that her body was not typical. They would look at her and immediately dismiss her as unintelligent purely based on her outward appearance. This is truly a tragedy. Not only have they missed out on a chance to interact with this exceptional individual, they have tended to short change her in the process. It is bad enough that many people are not interested in interacting with her due to her physical issues, people are dismissing her intelligence, put her in classes for the mentally impaired, and would not let her into their clubs and cliques.

On the flip side, this was a great opportunity for me to talk with someone in her condition about some of the things that I was unsure about. For instance, I tend to like offering help and opening doors for people in wheelchairs. I have run into a few occasions where people were offended at the offer. When I offer you help, I am not saying that you are not capable, just that I would like to travel beside you for a few steps or that I am trying to offer you a leg up. I am not trying to take your power or sneer at you in any way.

I believe that she spent more time struggling with being discounted mentally due to her physical situation and/or ignored. People would look at her and automatically assume she was not intelligent. This is a true tragedy. She is a very interesting person.

One story that she alluded to which completely shocked me initially took the form of a simple sentence. She mentioned that before she joined the coast guard, people acted as though she was invisible. Blink. I had not imagined the coast guard as a potential job for her (judging wrongly on physical appearance) and had not imagined that it would make a difference in how people interact with her in her day to day life. I think two factors contributed to the latter. I am sure that she was more confident for her interactions in the coast guard. She also had stickers on her chair that mentioned her affiliations. I am glad that she has found a way out. I told her that she should get a sticker that throws the body does not equal mind disparity in people's faces (preferably in a friendly way). I was thinking along the lines of "My mind is the same as yours". "Stephen Hawking: Nuff Said".

The next time you see someone that is confined to a wheelchair, or possibly their own head, remember: They are a person like me, they have similar desires to me, what would I like if I were in their shoes.

Ironically, the most distracting part of talking with her was the fact that she had experienced so much pain by being marginalized. WE have hurt her. She started out with less than us and WE hurt her. I am sorry for that S. Hopefully WE are sorry as well.

On a mildly related note, I have found that many people are hesitant to accept help. One of my friends, and a wonderful gentleman, Rob Lackey has been in California for several years. Last week was the first time that he was allowed to assist an older person to carry their groceries onto the bus. This simple story is an excellent anecdote for several things. Rob is the kind of person that will offer to assist people carrying their groceries. YAY! Rob is the kind of person that will keep on trying to offer to assist people with their groceries for years in the face of unwarranted rejection of said offers. Yay x 2! Our society has somehow gotten to the point where it is not easy to accept such offers for help. This last point is a bit depressing for me. There was a time where all of our houses were built by a community coming together. Now, if I see you carrying something heavy, it is somehow bad if I help? Why is that? Are we that afraid/insecure/independent that we can no longer work together?

When I want to hold the door open for people at a Starbucks for instance, I have found that offering does not go over well. What I have adapted to do, is walk a little bit faster and effectively cut in front of the other person. Then, when I get to the door, I pull it open, stand aside, and wave them in. Most people are quite surprised and appreciative. Some people still act suspicious. What kind of advantage or malicious intent could inspire someone to open the door for you?

If you see me cutting in front of you, I am either in a desperate hurry, or trying to help you. Judge people by what they want to do or try to do, not by what they look like. Body does not equal mind. Also, please follow Rob's example. If you offer help and are rudely rejected, continue to offer help. Some people may not be interested, some people may have been hurt, some people may feel threatened or slighted. Please offer with good intentions and do not give up.

Please offer and accept help, we can do much more together than we are capable of doing alone.


Travis Swicegood said...

Great post! I was just thinking about something similar, though a different scenario last week. Need to get a blog post up on it.

Jacob Taylor said...

Thank you. I have a few others that follow along this thought as well. I am curious to see where this thread goes. Ping me when you get your blog entry posted.

Jim said...

Sound advice and great example for your little boy Jacob.