Experiencing Disability: A Mile in their Shoes

By Kindra French, Mobility 101 of San Diego

When I was a little girl, my grandma used to say all kinds of things. She was a perpetual fountain of wise phrases: "When a task is once begun, never leave it 'til it's done." "A place for everything, and everything in its place." "Go with God, and He'll go with you." "You can't really understand what someone's going through unless you walk a mile in their shoes."

Her words still reverberate through my mind. For those of us who serve the aging and disability communities, how do we possibly “walk a mile in their shoes?” We have training. We have skills. We have therapies and devices. But do we really understand? Yet understanding our clients and their needs is crucial to our ability to provide meaningful support.

Experiencing Disability as an Able-Bodied Person

A few months ago, I had a brief opportunity to put myself in the shoes of someone with a disability, just for a few minutes. I’m still miles away from really understanding, but even those few minutes of impairment impacted me profoundly. I was enrolled in a series of courses offered by the National Association of Homebuilders to become a Certified Aging in Place Specialist. During the course, we completed an exercise that allowed us to experience three common disabilities: impaired vision, hearing loss, and limited dexterity.

Experiencing Disability

First, participants' eyes were covered with screens that mimicked several conditions that affect vision, like cataracts, glaucoma, and total blindness. We were instructed to navigate our way from the conference room, across the office, to a community kitchen, to the restroom and back. In just a few minutes of visual impairment, I was made acutely aware of the incredible challenges that someone with limited vision faces with basic tasks, not just physically, but emotionally. Far from childhood games of Marco Polo, I was completely unprepared for the amount of focused concentration I had to exert in feeling my way across the room. Even though I knew that we were on a single level, and that my path was relatively unobstructed, I found myself moving painstakingly slowly, and shuffling my feet along the ground. I felt insecure and unclear. Even with partial vision, when my eyes were covered with the glaucoma and cataract screens, I moved slowly and uncertainly. I had to rely on my sense of touch, yet my touch was tentative. 

Next, each participant inserted ear plugs and walked around the office building. Unable to hear, I felt surprisingly isolated. I didn't respond to a woman's friendly greeting, because I didn't hear her. I could hear deeper voices, but even those were muffled and hard to understand. The sound of my own breath was intensified as everything else around me was muted. I hesitated to enter conversation, and found that I either had to concentrate intently or disengage completely. Casual conversation was no longer a casual encounter. I was astonished at how even limited hearing, not total deafness, left me feeling incapable and alone.

Experiencing Disability

For our last exercise in the series, each participant held a tennis ball in each hand, and our hands were covered with socks. These accessories were intended to mimic conditions, like arthritis, that limit dexterity. We were asked to attempt simple tasks: opening doors, turning on lamps, typing on a keyboard, plugging in a coffee maker. Once again, I was dumbfounded by how affected I was emotionally by the physical limitations I experienced. I found myself frustrated and impatient as I tried unsuccessfully to turn on a computer; I was irritated by my lack of ability. The simple had become impossible.

New Insights into the Community’s Challenges

I’m so grateful to have participated in this short exercise in understanding a few of the challenges our friends and loved ones with disabilities face. Truth is, though, as an able bodied person, no matter how many times I cover my eyes or plug my ears or stuff my hands, I will never be able to fully comprehend what it’s like to live with a disability. What I can do is listen, and invite my friends and loved ones with disabilities to let me share their journey. I can offer acceptance, support and respect. I can rejoice when they rejoice, and mourn when they mourn. I may never truly walk a mile in their shoes, but I can walk that mile alongside them.

About the Author:

Kindra French is a Certified Aging in Place Specialist and a blogger for 101 Mobility of San Diego.


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