I recently attended a major PGA event. After the superstars of the golf world finished sinking a putt in their eighteenth hole, the crowd left in droves. Hundreds of weary fans who had been out in the sun and on their feet all day following their favorite golfers from tee to tee, chasing their thirst with their drink of choice, now only wanted one thing: to get out of there as fast as possible. We crowded around the volunteers in bright yellow vests who were trying to herd all of us into a civil line to wait for the shuttle bus and surveyed our competition. There were only so many seats. Tension moved among us, taking up precious space, as people calculated their next move to ensure a spot on the bus.
The next shuttle pulled in, crept up to the loading point and unfolded its door. The crowd widened and moved forward as one, pulsing and pushing towards the open space that forced us to funnel one at a time on the bus. To our left, we heard a voice say, “Excuse me, please make a way. Excuse me. Excuse me.” The crowd turned to look at who had the audacity to expect such a thing. We saw a small thin man who seemed to be ninety-five years old or so, with a cane in his right hand and a blue veterans hat on his head. The crowd stilled and silently parted down the middle. I felt like I was witnessing a miracle, like Moses parting the Red Sea. We were united, for just a moment, committed to helping this man get on the bus that we all so badly wanted to board. The crowd waited and watched while the old veteran shuffled to the door and boarded the bus, one slow step at a time.
It restored my faith in humanity that despite our selfish agendas, we still had the ability to pay respect to those who’ve come before us, to show kindness and compassion to someone who needed it. We could see that this man needed a seat faster than the rest of us, that he couldn’t wait in line or navigate a pushy, aggressive crowd. We could see his advanced age and that he had served our country. None of this information was spoken to us. It was communicated visually. We could see it.
We are a visual culture. We often say things like, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” “Show Me the Money.” “Seeing is believing.” We are innocent until proven guilty, and in order to convict someone, we need proof, physical evidence that we can look at. We want eyewitnesses. We are a skeptical and cynical bunch and like to see things for ourselves. I wonder how the crowd would have reacted if when they turned toward the voice requesting special treatment, they saw an average-looking man or woman with no visible challenges, no visible reason to be allowed to the front of the line.
Navigating this world can be a little easier when we communicate things about ourselves visually. We have to explain less. We still don’t want people to make assumptions about us, but there is information available to the onlooker. You can usually see advanced age, a broken leg in a cast, a wheelchair or a uniform.
Unfortunately, for those with invisible disabilities, the challenges they are faced with on a daily basis are not visible to the rest of us, especially at first glance. Those that may suffer from PTSD, anxiety or panic disorder, Epilepsy, life-threatening food allergies, chronic lung disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis or cognitive limitations, to name only a few, may look just like the rest of us. Sleep disorders such as, Narcolepsy, Idiopathic Hypersomnia or Sleep Apnea, are usually invisible to others who don’t have experience recognizing the signs. Information about why those that suffer from these types of challenges might need to go to the front of the line, or why they are taking longer than they should to check out, or why they are standing on the street corner holding a sign, is not immediately apparent. We are blind to the reason for their behavior. People with invisible disabilities are judged, misunderstood and often met with angry, impatient reactions to a request for special treatment.
I continue to challenge myself every day to SEE what may not be obvious or apparent. I’m committed to following these three steps when I encounter a person or situation that I don’t understand. I hope you’ll join me.
• Stop. Pause. Take a breath, a beat, a moment, before you do or say something impatient or hurtful, take a moment to consider.
• Evaluate: Ask questions. Is there an impairment? Could there be more than what I see on the surface?
• Empathize: Put yourself in their shoes. Give compassion.
I don’t always get it right, but I will keep trying to get there—one slow step at a time. Perhaps we can have more miracles, like Moses and the Red Sea, or the tired golf crowd and the old veteran, perhaps, the blind will see.