‘Since I’ve been in a wheelchair, often people no longer talk to me. They talk to my carer instead, as if I didn’t exist.’
I’ve heard comments like this several times over the years from people who are in wheelchairs. Whether you were born with a disability or suffered some illness or injury later in life, unfortunately, once you’re in a wheelchair, you may not be treated with much respect. Because I’m white, middle-class and educated, I take it for granted that, most of the time, I’ll be treated with basic courtesy. Recent examples when this hasn’t been the case – talking to a website company on the phone, dealing with a real estate agent – left me feeling quite put out. How dare they be patronising towards me! In the midst of my indignation I suddenly remembered that, for many of the people I work with, being treated with patronising disdain is probably a daily reality.
I remember a client in a wheelchair looking around at the others in the care facility and complaining stridently (and in a very loud voice which could be clearly heard by everyone) about being surrounded by ‘spastics’. He had no insight that his years of chronic alcohol abuse had left him with the same kind of significant disabilities as the others in the room. Over the years, I’ve run a lot of group programmes for people with severe acquired brain injury (ABI). When someone new joins the group, you can see the look of relief on their faces when they realise, over the weeks, that this is a place where they are respected, where they are welcomed and treated as individuals with dignity. So often in their everyday life, they struggle with making themselves heard, having their contributions valued, or being treated like a grown-up member of the community.
A common usage of the word ‘mindful’ is to be mindful of others – to be aware of their feelings and needs, and how our own behaviour might be impacting on them. Lack of respect comes in many guises – ranging from blatant racism or misogyny to being casually dismissive of someone’s feelings. While we don’t necessarily want to become too earnest (nodding solemnly and asking – that must have been difficult, how do you feel now? – every time someone mentions a minor annoyance), we can easily discount the experiences of others without giving much thought to what might be going on for them.
We can also treat ourselves with lack of respect – not being mindful of our own needs and limitations. We may try too hard to please people, not give ourselves the balance of work and rest we require, or never ‘find’ the time for exercise, meditation, coffee with friends. It’s easy to ignore the niggles in our bodies – the sore shoulder, the upset stomach, the frequent colds – and simply soldier on. We might ignore the niggles on our minds – the feelings of dissatisfaction, resentment and fatigue which plague us, without doing much about them.
Mindfulness is a practice of respect – respect for ourselves and for others. Mindfulness does not exaggerate problems, nor does it dismiss them. It is respectful to make the time to listen – whether it is to someone with a disability taking longer to communicate, or the subtle signals from our own bodies and minds. Slowing down, being present, are all ways of paying respect.
Weekly practice idea:
Choose something which has been niggling at you for a while, and make a time to give this issue some respectful attention. Come back to it several times this week, and allow yourself to be curious about what emerges.