3 Empathy Tips Learned Befriending Someone with a Disability

Mar 29, 2020 8 Min Read
Person with disability using a hearind aid
Respond With Empathy When Facing A Person with A Disability

50% discount for train rides, 50% discount for bus rides, 50% discount for movie tickets. This is a privilege my good friend enjoys regularly, all year long. When I first found out about it, I was envious. If you were to offer me these deals, I would snap it up in a dash. But there is a catch on what enables her to enjoy such privileges in Malaysia.

She is officially an ‘Orang Kurang Upaya (OKU)’ (people with disability) or recently termed as ‘Orang Berlainan Upaya’ (differently-abled person). She was diagnosed with hearing impairment/partial hearing loss in her late teens.

In order to assist her hearing, she has to purchase expensive hearing aids as well as the moving parts that come with it. These cost her thousands of Ringgit Malaysia (RM) and the disposable batteries used are specially imported from Germany. The batteries have a lifetime of only 7 to 10 days, depending on usage.

On average, she spends about RM100 per month on her hearing aids for its maintenance and upkeep. Despite having the hearing aids, it does not magically transform or fix her hearing, it merely assists her to hear better. Hence, ‘hearing’ is still an everyday struggle for her.

Hearing Aid. Image source: www.alibaba.com/product-detail

It has been 2 years since I’ve known her, and here‘s some of the teasing she has to put up with:

“Can your hearing aids enable you to hear the dolphins?”

“Since your hearing aids can connect to Spotify via Bluetooth, does this mean that if you open your mouth, it goes into loudspeaker mode?”

“Your hearing aids have GPS for both sides of your ears, if you go missing, we can find your ears.”
And there were some interesting incidents too. For example:

  • It was the end of the day of a very intense and exhausting programme. The group was having a debrief to recap what had happened as well as to plan for what will be happening the next day. The team lead decided to praise my friend publicly and passionately shared how she was very adaptable in handling potentially tricky situations as well as her decisiveness in making crucial decisions. The team lead spoke for at least five minutes but my friend could not hear a single thing that was said because her hearing aid’s battery had died earlier.
  • She recently attended the Phantom of the Opera musical. She had managed to purchase the costly tickets at the last minute and she was really excited to watch it only to discover that the volume button on her hearing aids were faulty on the day of the show. Because of that, she could barely hear the beautiful singing and dialogue exchanged during the play.

While the above two scenarios may not be something that occurs to us in our everyday life, the struggle is real for her.

Now, amplify the magnitude of her situation by a few more times as she only bought the hearing aids several years back. In her growing up years without a hearing aid, she never knew that during rainy days, rain droplets could be heard from the inside of a building. She never knew that her act of typing on the laptop keyboard was as loud as firecrackers.

She also never realised that she had been speaking very loudly, as she could not gauge the volume of her own voice. Growing up, it would not be surprising if people around her thought she had problems paying attention, or even label her as being stubborn, when in fact, she just could not hear them.

Being her friend and mentor, it is inevitable for miscommunication to happen due to her hearing situation and it can be frustrating at times. She compensates by reading the lips of the person she is talking to and tries to piece the words together whenever she can’t hear them clearly.

That may leave many windows for assumptions, which can cause further misinterpretation of the real message that I intended to convey. Words that consists of the letters ‘s’ (like ‘house’), ‘th’ (like ‘this’), or ‘f’ (like ‘first’) proves even more challenging for her to hear (read more on ‘Speech Banana’) as those fall under the ‘high frequency’ category.

Despite me being her mentor, she has in return, educated me on a very important skill called empathy.
Empathy (based on the Cambridge English Dictionary) is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation. Empathy needs to be distinguished from sympathy. Despite both words rhyming nicely, the differences are like heaven and earth.

Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection – Dr. Brené Brown

Dr Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, explains empathy as a skill that can bring people together and make people feel included, while sympathy creates an uneven power dynamic and can lead to more isolation and disconnection.

The challenge with ‘empathy’ has always been relativity. How can a rich person know how it feels to be so poor that you have no food to eat for three days? How can I understand what it feels like to face hearing loss challenges?

Here are three ways I have learned how to be more empathetic:

1. Utilising the word ‘What’ rather than ‘Why’

The word ‘why’ carries a very emotional connotation whenever it is used. Therefore, whenever a situation occurs with my friend, I am always mindful and intentional in asking her ‘what’ rather than ‘why’ to understand her better.

For example:

  1. What did you mean earlier when you said…….?” rather than “Why did you say such words?
  2. What happened during training just now? You seemed to hold back and were a bit distracted?” rather than “Why did you perform poorly during training just now?”
  3. What made you choose that course of action?” rather than “Why did you chose that course of action?

The word ‘what’ comes from a place of trying to understand her thought processes rather than asking ‘why’, which sounds more accusatory and could give the impression that she is doing something wrong.

Words have a powerful influence on our lives, just like how the word ‘challenging’ sounds more hopeful and doable rather than the word ‘difficult’ which sounds like we are being pushed into a tight corner with no real solution in sight.

2. Mindful in my thinking

While I do mentor her in many areas, I have always been mindful to think of every individual as equally important, and that no one is superior to others. This is vital to ensure that I constantly seek to look at things from her perspective. If I were to think that I am superior to her, I could potentially dismiss her point of view.

This would cause me to fall into the thinking trap of feeling that whenever she does something wrong, it is her behavioural issue. We ought to remember that just like a coin, there are always two sides to a story. Connection is very important when it comes to empathy. Without connection, ‘empathy’ would just be an empty word.

3. Being aware of her body language

Having gone through more than half her life without hearing aids, she has developed certain habits over the years. Some are positive, some could be counter-productive. One of the counter-productive ones that I have noticed would be the mindset of ‘not wanting to trouble others’. This means that she is sometimes overly apologetic, even when it is unnecessary.

She would also have the tendency to give way and bottle up her real emotions in potentially awkward or challenging situations. For example, when somebody is teaching her the strategy for ultimate frisbee and she could not hear part of it, she would speak up and seek clarification.

However, when the person repeats again, and she still cannot hear and understand it, she would be hesitant in asking for further clarification, worrying that she may be taking away precious time from the coach. Hence, the strategy that was being shared did not achieve its intended outcome in the end.
Therefore, it is really crucial for me to learn how to pick up some of her cues that may signal confusion. That will enable me to anticipate instances where more clarification and repetition might be required.

To tie it all together

Empathy is about being mindful and intentional on how you approach another person’s situation. Utilised properly, empathy is a powerful skill that can positively impact and greatly support an individual that is going through challenging times.

Our communication is far from perfect, misunderstandings and miscommunications still happen. However, it is rewarding to see her make progress. Apart from teaching me patience, she gives me the space to learn empathy – a transferable skill that proves to be very useful at the workplace.

Editor's note: Speaking of being mindful, outside of friendships, it can be extremely helpful to learn how to show your emotions at work.

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