The Tottering See-Saw of “Empathy Exercises”

by D’Arcee Neal, UCP’s Manager of Institutional Giving

D'Arcee Neal

D’Arcee Neal

Being a person who is disabled and who works as a disability advocate is like being on a see-saw. I am tempted at times –influenced by society and my own experiences – to move into rage mode, because so much of what I see day in and day out doesn’t mesh with what I know is right. But then I tilt toward the other side which is a “woe is me” mode of pity, sympathy and understanding because I know that I can better get my point across by interacting with people in a gentle, respectful way. In reality, I think that effective advocates balance on the see-saw’s fulcrum, right in the middle. You can teach without being combative, but shoving the rage down inside of you and ignoring what’s wrong with a pair of rose-colored contacts in your eyes helps no one.

 So, when I saw a video this week of CNN’s Anderson Cooper as he tried an empathy exercise for people who have schizophrenia, I moved back and forth on the emotional see-saw as I tried to make sense of what I was seeing. I came across the clip after seeing comments on it from people in an online Cerebral Palsy group I belong to. They were posting angry comments about the purpose of empathy exercises and their effectiveness with the general public. I wondered for a moment: do empathy exercises really do ANYTHING?

Most of us (especially people with disabilities) already know that nothing accurately replicates another individual’s struggles. This is partially why struggles are so difficult, whether it be issues of race, disability, sexuality or any of the myriad possibilities in the human race. However, this isn’t to say that we should just shrug our shoulders. If the only people willing to learn about disabilities were doctors, then the world would be a much different place, and society might see medical professionals as little more than morbidly curious paparazzi with scalpels instead of cameras.

Thankfully, the world isn’t like that and we have people from all walks of life dedicated to learning about, dealing with, and understanding people with disabilities. But for those who haven’t crossed that threshold of understanding, then empathy exercises are one of the best ways to offer them the tiniest glimpse into another person’s world. 

In college, I had a friend who decided to live in a wheelchair for 48 hours as part of a sociology project. In my mind, I laughed because I knew there was a slim chance that he would actually do it, but I played along. Just rolling about 2 or 3 blocks to the cafeteria for dinner together, he was out of breath from the effort. He exclaimed that he needed to “pause” the experiment because he had to use the bathroom really badly. My facial expression said it all. And I think he began to understand what many see as the fundamental flaw of the empathy exercise: they end. My Cerebral Palsy is a constant, all-day, all-consuming affair, much like any permanent disability and I understand why some people are angry about the idea that it is possible to simulate it. The exercise cheapens and reduces the experience, in their opinion.

I think that if the experience is framed in the right way, it could be such that people would never forget it. Even if the experience isn’t particularly powerful, the understanding is there at least for the moment, so that people might think about it in the future, and that’s a good thing. Honestly, that’s what I think empathy exercises are about – not about changing someone’s perspective in a mind-blowing way, but introducing small changes which allows leads them to momentary understanding which might come back. 

Empathy exercises may not be the societal game changer many people want it to be, but you have to start somewhere.