Have you ever been out and about when a person—a stranger to you—stared at you and your supplemental oxygen? Were you asked, “Did you smoke?” Or, if you don’t use supplemental oxygen, has anybody ever watched you as you were coughing or working hard to catch your breath? If so, how did you feel? What happened next? Maybe you ignored it. Maybe you said something to that person. Do you tend to educate strangers when something like this happens? Or do you feel that it’s not your responsibility?
Let’s take a few minutes today to think about how people we don’t know may see us. All they see, at first, is our outward appearance. In late 2017 I attended an event that focused on this very thing. The first “Rude 2 Respect” Summit on challenging health stigma was a gathering of individuals representing more than 40 chronic health conditions or disabilities. Many of the attendees had disorders that were easy for strangers to see at a glance, so they were used to intrusive stares, being awkwardly avoided, or hearing thoughtless comments. Others at the summit had less obvious challenges that nevertheless might cause them to take unexplained actions—canceling plans at the last minute, dashing off to the restroom, or something else. Hearing from these folks was fascinating— and enlightening. And I learned a lot. Here is the group photo from that event.
When asked what they prefer strangers do when they come upon somebody with a visible limitation, disorder, or challenge, without exception each one said that they would rather be approached and politely asked about their condition rather than just stared at, whispered about, or avoided. Many of them said that if, for example, a child was staring at them, the person with the health issue would say something like, “I’ll bet you’re wondering why I have no hair, why I am in a wheelchair, why I carry this white cane.” I learned that this was almost always followed by a brief, but friendly, informed, conversation between the two. And that was followed by the non-affected person leaving with new information and a greater empathy and respect for the other person.
This brings us back around to our questions at the beginning of this blog post. As a person with COPD, how do you communicate with strangers who may, or may not, understand your health issue?
Let’s talk! I look forward to hearing from you!
Follow this link for more on my experience at the Rude2Respect Summit.
Rude2Respect: A Summit on Facing – and Challenging – Health Stigma | PRAXIS (copdfoundation.org)