The lives of people with disability are full of secrets. Not secrets-on-purpose, but accidental secrets.
Only a female wheelchair user knows the importance of a well-fitting bra so that your straps don’t fall down when travelling – only a sheltered workshop employee knows what it is like to sweat over some menial task and be paid three dollars an hour for a long day’s work. There are secrets associated with bodily functions, rarely talked about, to preserve whatever dignity remains to you – secrets associated with discrimination and shame and humiliation, inflicted upon you over and over. All of these secrets make up a rich tapestry of experience that is rarely observed by the rest of the community. Those secrets, sometimes divulged through the telling of stories, are the secrets that can lead to the changes that we desperately need to be included in daily Australian life.
I’ve just watched an RSA Animate video – you can watch it here – which talks about the need for ‘outrospection’, rather than introspection. The author of the video, Roman Krznaric, says that in the twentieth century, we said that the best way to discover who we are was to look inside of ourselves. He believes that is something that needs to change in the twenty first century. I agree. For years, shows like Dr Phil and Oprah have told us to indulge in navel gazing in order to improve our lives. Has it worked? I don’t think so. Krznaric says that in order to discover who you are and what you need to do with your life, you need to step outside of yourself, be ‘outrospective’ and expand your empathic potential.
Empathy is a funny word, and frequently misunderstood in a disability context. It is often confused with sympathy, or pity. That’s not what people with disability want – who wants to be someone’s good deed for the day? There are two types of empathy – effective empathy, a shared emotional response, mirroring someone’s emotions. That’s the way that you feel when you see someone struggling with something or suffering terribly – you feel bad for them. But the other type of empathy is cognitive empathy. That’s the type of empathy we need. It’s dangerous empathy, the kind that leads to the understanding of another person’s world view, understanding the experiences that shape how they look at the world, creating lasting social change. Dangerous empathy, because it can create revolution.
How do we create this dangerous empathy? Why, by sharing the Secret Lives of Us.
I loved this idea. An empathy museum, not a dusty space full of Victorian relics, but an experiential and conversational public space. Imagine a human library where you could borrow a person with a disability who had lived in an institution – to sit and have a half hour conversation. Or a line of sewing machines and former sheltered workshop factory workers, where you could learn to do something really menial for an hour, and be paid two dollars fifty at the end of it. A café, where you would be served the same fare and have the same choices that a person living in a boarding house is allowed, and be able to sit and watch a video where you discover what twentieth century Australian life means for a bunch of people with disability. A place where you could make a connection by stepping outside of yourself and discovering the secret lives of people with disability.
By sharing the secret lives of us, we can tap into the evolutionary basis of human cooperation and create connections that were not there before. It’s a whole new challenge, exploring our capacity for empathy, especially under a conservative government who places more emphasis on the economy than on people. As people with disability and members of a community who care about fairness, we need to forget charity and altruism and put emphasis on the ‘other e-word’.