A society of care

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

Renowned feminist Gloria Steinem once called empathy the most revolutionary emotion. When we look out and see a world riven by inequality and division, to the point of widespread discrimination, exploitation and even war, what we see is the ultimate consequence of this lack of empathy, this fundamental disregard of common humanity.

The human imagination that is capable of the creation and appreciation of entirely different worlds, that allows us to cry at the plight of fictional beings – somehow balks when it comes to placing ourselves in the shoes of other living, breathing people. Not all of them of course – simply those who we do not see as “like us,” as “our people.” And we are much less likely to view those who suffer more than we do as our people.

Many of the inequalities of society are, at their core, a failure of empathy on the part of those in power – whether this power is in the hands of a tyrant, or a corporate board, or an ethnic majority. And these failures of empathy are fundamentally a problem of the powerful and the privileged. After all, to paraphrase that old song, when you’re smiling you feel that the world smiles with you. When the world as it is gives you no cause for complaint, then it is easy to dismiss the complaints and pain of others.

For many of us, when we view those who live more privileged lives through the lens of aspiration – they are who we could be, so they cannot be all that different from us. But when we look at those who are less fortunate than us – the marginalized, the instinct is to look away – to deny that they could have been us, or could still be us. The plight of others can make us uncomfortable, and when we look away, we make them invisible. We deny a reality.

This is particularly true when it comes to those with disabilities. Abledness is seen as the default by society and is something that abled people take for granted. We presume that a location with stairs is accessible to all, that education that is given primarily through books is viable for all, that a warning given out through a loudspeaker is discernible by all.

It is presumptions such as these – failures of empathy such as these, that, at the end of the day, are responsible for making people “disabled.” As I’ve mentioned before: “…in many cases, what makes a person ‘disabled’ is caused by the refusal of society to take their needs into account.”

Empathy for the needs of the disabled is particularly important now, while the world still grapples with the effects of COVID-19. With the upcoming elections, with the war in Ukraine – coupled with the relatively low case counts that are now released weekly instead of daily – it is easy to see that COVID has faded into the background of the minds of many. The brutal Omicron wave in January may have desensitized some, for a variety of reasons: maybe they had a case of Omicron and found that it was not so bad; maybe they were inundated by coverage classifying the variant as “mild” (a harmful oversimplification). Here and around the world we see a greater push to return to the pre-pandemic lifestyle, without much of the safeguards that, in the past two years, have served to blunt the effects of the virus: masks, social distancing, ventilation, health checks.

This is a dangerous and abled attitude to take. As the United Nations has stated, persons with disabilities generally have more health-care needs than others, and are more vulnerable to the impact of low quality or inaccessible health care services than others. Many will have underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19, or have difficulty in accessing the exercise, tests or the public health expertise that can increase our protection against the disease. To top it all off, a significant number of those who survive COVID-19 may develop long or long-haul COVID. Long COVID patients have reported symptoms which can prove debilitating and disabling in the long-term, such as extreme fatigue or brain fog. A disabled individual who, because of an increased vulnerability to COVID-19, is infected with the virus and progresses to long COVID will be faced with devastating challenges.

It is the job of society to conduct itself in a manner which lessens the chances of that horrible scenario from occurring. It is our job as members of society – as fellow humans – to do the utmost to protect the most vulnerable among us, and to better their quality of life, even if it means taking steps that seem as surplusage to an abled person.

Someone who has no problem walking has no need for a ramp – but for someone in a wheelchair, it could mean access to basic essentials. Someone with sight may never open a book written in braille – but a blind person may find it to be their only access to a text. A neurotypical child may see no harm in solely having remote classes – but one with a learning disability may require the hands-on stimulation of personal interaction with a teacher.

That last exemplifies how the needs of those with disabilities must be adjusted to specific situations – there are many disabled persons who would be better served by remote access, but for others anything remote is by nature inaccessible. There can be no one size fits all policy for dealing with disability. Access and policies must be tailored to suit specific disabilities and specific needs.

Is this a lot of work? Yes. Work that the abled may never see as being relevant to them. And yet work to benefit and include the disabled is work that benefits the abled as well. For a society that includes the disabled is a society of empathy, a society of care. And when we too, inevitably, can no longer do what the majority can, it is a society, which will continue to see us and our needs. It is a society that will not look away from the plight of the vulnerable.

It is a society which we should all aspire to live in and which we should all work hard to attain.

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