The Invisible Man

Disability doesn't have to be the defining characteristic.

Disability doesn’t have to be this child’s defining characteristic.

As Murphy eloquently describes in this chapter of his autobiographical account, the disabled become invisible, or because they are not, a source of tension and embarrassment. He talks about the discomfort able-bodied people feel at seeing the disabled and suggests it is due to Freud’s ideas on what is a sociological “great flaw”. While this makes sense, I believe it also has to do with a person’s discomfort at the idea of being in the same situation. For example, seeing someone in a wheelchair sometimes gives me the feeling of being claustrophobic. As a runner, the idea of being so physically confined is frightening to me. It is not that I am frightened of an individual in a wheelchair, but I guess what that person’s circumstances represent.

I think we can apply the idea of discomfort regarding the disabled to many things. For example, some people may be too uncomfortable to be around the disabled. Some disabilities may seem more “offensive” than others. Diarrheal Disease, I believe, is a good example of a disability that makes people uncomfortable. People know, or should know, that DD is the leading cause of death amongst children and quite high on the list of overall preventable mortality, however their disgust of all things related to fecal matter prevents them from further researching or getting involved. To me, yes, diarrhea is not pretty, not fun, not inherently fascinating, but the subject itself is so very important. It is such an enormous problem in the world that people must overlook the “ick factor” of the word itself and go deeper into the reasons why people are getting it, where it is occurring, who is affected most, how it can be stopped, and realize that it is a painful, debilitating disease that too many people are afflicted with. If people are uncomfortable with hearing about it, imagine the people who have it. They are going to be even less likely to want to talk about it, which makes it harder to help.

I think great strides could be taken in helping others if empathy was applied to more cases. Murphy says he was able to feel only a little empathy for the disabled people he saw in Africa because he could not relate, but I think we can all find empathy for others. All of us (unless there are extremely lucky people, I suppose) have experienced suffering. While we may not know what it is like to lose function in all of our limbs, or be affected by a life altering/ending disease, it should not be hard to find within us a connection of understanding for our fellow people.

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2 thoughts on “The Invisible Man

  1. I agree that the discomfort healthy people have around diseased people is rooted in fear of the inflicted person’s position. Disease highlights the fragility of life, and the inability to escape suffering and ultimately death. Disease is a reminder that no one is invicincible. It is difficult not to imagine your own life in an inflicted body when you are around someone who is inflicted. However this kind of thinking does nothing to help. In fact it drives people away leaving the sick person dealing with both physical pain and social pain. Rejection is the worst kind of treatment and can do more damage than the physical pain itself.

  2. I think it’s very interesting that you mention the concept of claustrophobia when you talk about people in wheelchairs. I have never thought about it that way. It just comes to say that there could be a variety of reasons why disabled people make us uncomfortable. I can relate to your point by saying that being physically confined in a wheelchair is frightening, only because it wouldn’t allow me to play the sports that I enjoy, and it scares me how much I would have to rely on other people for help.

    I absolutely can see the point behind when you say that empathy could be applied in a lot of cases and that because we have all suffered in one way or another, we should at least be able to relate to how the disabled are feeling. But one of the most important parts about anything you study is that you can relate to it in one way, shape or form.

    I like what you said about having to overcome the “ick factor” because when you think about it, if people got over it and started treating these people with diarrheal diseases, there would be no more “ick factor” to deal with.

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