By Mark E. Smith
Over a decade ago, members on the WheelchairJunkie.com message board wrote disparaging comments about one particular model of wheelchair, noting its shortcomings, and word quickly spread among mobility consumers. The head of the company that manufactured the wheelchair model was so upset by the comments that he emailed many in the industry, explaining that the consumer opinions posted on WheelchairJunkie.com couldn’t be trusted because the site was run by a non-disabled individual. That non-disabled individual was, of course, me, a guy with cerebral palsy and a lifelong wheelchair user.
At the time, I thought that the gentleman’s comments, stating that I wasn’t disabled, were bizarre, humorous, and offensive all at once. After all, how does one legitimately accuse someone who clearly has a profound disability of not being disabled? However, what’s remained striking to me after all of these years of running the web site and living as among the most public individuals with a disability is that I sometimes still have readers accuse me of not being disabled. Truly, it seems like a month doesn’t go by where someone will state to me via email or phone words to the effect of, “Mark, maybe if you were disabled yourself, you’d understand what it’s like to live in a wheelchair….”
How one can read through the goliath collection of posts, articles, pictures, and videos that is WheelchairJunkie.com, and not recognize that I’m a disabled individual, is inexplicable to me. Yet, as odd as it sounds, some readers completely gloss over the blatant and obvious – that I’m Mr. Cerebral Palsy, himself! – and send me angry emails labeling me as able-bodied. How is that possible?
Finally, in an effort to address this peculiarity of my public persona, I strove to make a video response:
Beyond the strange emails that I receive, and my humorous video, truly there’s a very serious side to this subject. Some individuals are so self-absorbed by their disability experience that not only are they truly blind toward anyone else living with disability, but they ultimately lack a far more vital trait: Empathy.
Pioneering psychiatrist, Carl Jung, founded the concept of the “wounded healer” – deeming it as vital to our healthy interactions with others. In everyday practice, a “wounded healer” is one who uses his or her own experiences and hardships as a way to grow and empathize with others, helping them cope in their own struggles. Alcoholics Anonymous “sponsors” are based on the wounded healer principle, where recovering alcoholics act as support systems and mentor those newly finding sobriety – that is, no one knows the struggles of sobriety better than one who has accomplished it. Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors don’t say, Let me tell you how bad I’ve had it in life…. Rather, Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors say, I know how hard it is to get sober – and, based on what I’ve experienced, I’d like to help you get through the tough journey, as well. A wounded healer, then, is someone who’s experienced struggles, pain, and hardship, but instead of becoming bitter, he or she develops a heightened empathy, and is drawn toward helping others in similar circumstances.
The wounded healer principle is a vital and natural part of the healthy lives of those of us with disabilities, as well. Rather than our growing bitter and self-absorbed by disability experience – blind to the struggles of others – we inherently grow from our experience, developing heightened empathy, using our experiences to help others with disabilities on their journeys. After all, it’s hard for a fully-aware individual to experience any hardship without feeling empathy for those on a similar path, including living with disability.
I wonder, then, when some try to pull the you-don’t-know-what-it’s-like-to-be-disabled trick on me and others with disabilities, could it be that they, themselves, aren’t truly accepting what it’s like to be disabled, that their bitterness and lack of empathy has them in limbo or denial toward accepting disability as a part of their own lives?
The answer is, absolutely. The fact is, we must be honest about our own struggles in order to truly recognize and respect the struggles of others. We must completely acknowledge and accept our own disabilities if we are going to acknowledge and accept others’. An alcoholic can only see another’s alcoholism when he, himself, recognizes his own struggles to get sober. A healer can best understand the wounded when he, himself, has been wounded.
No, I don’t take it personally when one with a disability takes out his or her frustrations on me, accusing me of not knowing what it’s like to have a disability or use a wheelchair. Rather, I approach such individuals with patience and understanding. After all, I know what it’s like to be wounded.