One of my favorite Star Trek characters was Deanna Troi. She had a special ability as an empath. She could literally feel what another person or rather alien life form was feeling. Deanna’s ability to empathize gave her insights and understanding that often came very handy as the crew explored the universe. Similarly, empathizing can be very helpful in working with clients.
A question some Cooperative Paws Service Dog Coaching™ students periodically share is a concern about whether someone without a disability really can empathize with a person who has a disability. It’s an understandable worry. Disability seems like a very different life experience.
Dog trainers routinely work with pet owners who are experiencing a different situation that they may not personally have experienced. No dog trainer has personal experience living with a dog with every single possible behavior or training challenge they will encounter when working with owners. Even if they have experience with a particular behavior problem, they aren’t living in the same situation as the pet owner. In most cases, pet dog trainers feel comfortable and confident working with pet owners who have different living situations because they have experience, knowledge in how to help and they take time to learn about the owner’s needs. In short, knowledge, experience and listening to the owner makes it possible for the pet dog trainer to better empathize and understand.
Disability still can feel like a very different ballgame. People with disabilities are an extremely diverse group. Consider the following examples: someone who has a progressive, terminal diagnosis; someone with a sensory limitation; a parent with a child with a disability; a person who was born with a disability; a person who developed a disability later in life. Life experiences are different. A person with a disability does not automatically share a common experience with another individual with a disability.
Some of the people who have shown me wonderful empathy have not had experience with disability personally. My neurologist and my physical therapist are two such examples. They both have a combination of relevant education and they take time to ask questions and learn. They also acknowledge their limits and show kindness in their communication. They do not pretend to necessarily know or understand everything I’m experiencing. When training service dogs, it’s important to take some time to learn about disability but it’s normal not to fully understand the other person’s experience and to sometimes be totally befuddled. Simple kindness and being willing to listen go a long way.
With the internet, it’s easier than ever to gain information about different types of disabilities. Organizations and advocacy groups on specific types of disability are often great starting points such as the National Federation for the Blind, the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Also Centers for Independent Living often welcome visitors with and without disabilities. Even magazines that are directed to people with disabilities can be extremely helpful such as New Mobility. When working with service dogs, there are times when collaborating with healthcare providers can be tremendously helpful too.
Do you have suggestions on other resources for learning about disability? Feel free to share in the comments below.
Live long and prosper!