A surefire way to piss me off goes like this:
“I knew a guy who was disabled. He had a stroke/broke both his legs/lost the use of his fingers/messed up his hips/etc. But he pushed through, and you can, too! If you just try hard and work hard, you can get over your disability, come out the other side, and get back to work.”
It begins with me being interrupted, where my story stopped before it began. These well-meaning people with all their “expertise” just had to jump in before they’ve heard the whole story, because they felt the need to help. But because they refused to wait, they only ended up showing their ignorance, their unwillingness to listen, and their lack of empathy.
As a disabled woman, my voice gets pushed aside all the time by people who want to offer their lack of knowledge of my situation as a way to do things better. Sometimes they even try to better reframe my situation, when they refused to hear what my situation is.
In the case of the disability example given above - my disability will never get better, it will only get worse. I manage my symptoms every day, monitor them, and live day to day while trying not to look too far into the future. I do not have broken feet, or something physical therapy will help; it's something I will never, ever overcome.
The well-meant, unsolicited, terrible advice became more and more frequent the fewer adult accomplishments I had. As a married woman with no children, people who are parents sometimes felt the need to parent me. I reacted to this about as badly as a rebellious teenager, so my friends learned quickly not to do this, but some casual acquaintances interact with me the same way I see them interact with their children. They tell me what to do, how to do it, and in that same mothering/fathering tone of voice.
Now that I am not only childless, but jobless (because apparently “Writer” doesn’t count), the expertise and advice rains down. “You know what you should do …” is a phrase that prefaces almost everything when party conversation is focused on me, when my close friends and family are out of reach. So I came up with a game. I try to see how quickly I can get off the uncomfortable topic of ME and onto the more interesting topic of THEM. My record so far is 60 seconds.
It’s not that I’m beyond accepting advice. I belong to two professional critique groups. I’m open to hearing what people have to say about my situation when they listen without interrupting, and have taken the time to actively engage my situation.
I’m eager to listen to you if you’re not talking just to process your own ideas. I go to therapy, my husband and I believe in open communication, I believe nothing can be solved without talking about the issue. But that requires really listening, and taking time to consider the information, not just jumping in with a solution when you want to talk.
The disabled aren’t the only people whose voices are talked over before they’re heard. A lot of marginalized groups in the United States have had issues where their own situation gets explained to them by those outside of it, because those outside believe they understand it, even though they never, ever could.
Kinda like how R Kelly believed he could fly and touch the sky, but that totally didn't happen.
So if you’re looking in at someone’s situation, take time to listen. Don’t get out your Jump To Conclusions Mat before the story is over. People’s lives have twist endings, they’re not narratives as simple as Dick & Jane.
If you’re outside someone’s paradigm, whether they’re a person of color, LGBTQIA, mentally ill, disabled, of a different religious faith or denomination, or even on a different side of the political spectrum - take time to listen to what the person has to say. Don’t assume you understand, because you can’t. Don’t think you know what they’re going to say, because you don’t. Just like people’s lives have twist endings, people aren’t made from cookie-cutters - because you know one disabled person does not mean you know them all.
Listen, truly listen. You may learn something, or see something new in someone that makes you love them more. Become an expert in someone else because you took time to know them, not because you took time to try to help.