Tag Archives: empathy

Ripples That Create Awareness


The first time I came across a person with Down’s Syndrome, I don’t remember exactly how old I was at the time but know it was the tween years as it was at that time in life when being under my Maa’s constant reproving glare, I had lost my precocious disregard for keeping my tongue still and had not yet stepped into my obnoxious teen years when I overcame that glare again. What I do remember of that occasion is a deep sense of shame and an overwhelming guilt. The reason for this is that I completely screwed up.

How? The individual was my mother’s cousin visiting my maternal grandmother’s house with his parents. Well I looked at him with great discomfort and then throughout their visit just ignored his presence. Naturally a curious person though, I kept stealing surreptitious glances at him. I watched how he ate, drank his tea and how he sat calmly between his parents not participating in the conversation and how the adults in the room did not address him in any manner at all. He smiled when the others laughed, his eyes darted around taking in everyone, everything. He caught me a few times in my act of furtive curiosity beaming at me every time. In my clumsy tween ignorance, I gave a half smile averting my gaze yet again. But, what I will never forget of that face was his eyes. Completely guileless. Completely innocent. Completely honest. Seeking nothing.

Now why did I not behave better?

Was it because I was not taught to?

Or was it because these conversations were uncomfortable?

Or was it because when we turn a blind eye to something it ceases to exist for us?

Or was it because the sense of inclusion was meant only for the supposedly ‘normal’?

That brings me to my next question. What is normal?

To answer this I looked up the dictionary first to ensure that I did not make any errors. What I found led me to some very interesting ideas. Let me share these with the various meanings that Dictionary.com threw up.

Meaning No 1 for normal: conforming to the standard or the common type; usual; not abnormal; regular; natural. Well since, I do not consider ever conforming to the standard or the common type I am not normal. I detest the usual, the regular as too humdrum so I am certifiably abnormal. As for the natural! Well with coloured hair (some of it even ombre) certainly not qualifying for normal.

Meaning No 2 for normal: serving to establish a standard. How interesting!  If I were to go by the behaviour of the other grownups in the room to the said relative as serving to establish a standard, it’s a pretty miserable one. I do not want to serve to establish any such standard.

Meaning No 3 for normal: Psychology, says the Dic, normal is approximately average in any psychological trait, as intelligence, personality, or emotional adjustment. Now how many of us are going to accept that we are approximately average in any way, so are we all then as the venerable Dic, further explains not free from any mental disorder; therefore sane?

Meaning No 4 for normal: In Biological, Medicinal/Medical terms normal is free from any infection or other form of disease or malformation, or from experimental therapy or manipulation. Hello! With a twist to the wise Prophet of Nazareth’s words “let the first stone be thrown by the normal person.” How many of us can then with certainty claim to be untarred by the brush of fallibility?

So hence my conclusion, Normal does not apply to me. Maybe you feel the same. Maybe you don’t.

There are other meanings for the word ‘normal’ that relate to Mathematics and Chemistry but are hardly relevant to the discussion at hand so I shall not delve there. Also, I feel I have made my point (at least I hope I have) that ‘normal’ ain’t all that special.

So how did I learn to behave better?

That evening I asked my mother, when her relatives had left, what was ‘wrong’ with the uncle. She has always been a woman of gumption and did not sweep my inquisitiveness under the rug as an uncomfortable topic that if not talked about would be soon forgotten. She explained the problem to me in her usual scientific way with a huge smattering of pity in her tone. Pity. As parents, we find ourselves often transferring our biases to our children to protect them from the difficult questions of life. That day my mother transferred pity to mine. Pity. This was a feeling that would repeatedly walk with me as I grew up, crossing paths with more people who were what society terms as different. I honestly think that I got off lucky, pity was an easy bias to overcome. What if she had felt revulsion, disgust or repugnance?  So, let us be careful which bias we are passing on to our children. Once I had rejected the idea of pity my next thought was: Why should we consider them and their caregivers with pity? Isn’t that how we create victims and martyrs. Is that the aim? Over the years having interacted with several people with disabilities and their families there is one thing that I have learned, that ‘pity’ is abhorrent to them.

Then what is it that they want from us?

When I was in school we did not have any child with any kind of developmental disability. There was never any mention of it. It was as if these things did not exist. Nobody at home spoke about it as there was no need for such a discussion. What we didn’t know we did not ask. I do not offer this as an excuse for my behavior in fact on the contrary my reactions on that day were and remain inexcusable. What I offer is a contrast. My kids have had the privilege of studying in schools where inclusion of the differently abled is essential. Thus, I have two beautiful souls who are full of compassion and have never behaved in a manner that would embarrass them later in life as a result resort to writing blogs such as this. My children talk of the wondrous capabilities of their friends and I share their wonder for their friends truly are amazing. What I find most heartening is that my kids talk about these friends with deep affection. Respect and affection that is created by accepting diversity is the beauty of inclusive classroom. Special education professional Gretchen Walsh M.S. Ed., who runs the Academic Support Center at Notre Dame College, gives a concise synopsis when she says “Inclusion is important because through our diversity we certainly add to our creativity. If you don’t have a diverse classroom or a diverse world, you don’t have the same creative levels and I think our strength lies in our diversity.”


Friendship, love, respect, dignity is that too much to ask? Aren’t these basic human rights? A civilized society is one which is morally and intellectually advanced; that is humane and ethical. Diversity is finding acceptance in the classrooms, our children are moving towards a far better civilization, let us join them walking proudly shoulder to shoulder with them.

What can we do?

Down Syndrome

Solidarity is the union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests, that is what the world needs today in all spheres but especially here. When individuals come together to celebrate the rights of the few with Disruptive Abilities heartening stories are born. On the 21st of March the world celebrates World Down Syndrome Awareness Day, it is a day simply for creating awareness. This year in India under National Trust and  IN:For the Cause there were many beautiful stories born. Blue and yellow symbolizing the colors of this very special day emblazoned vistas.17362013_10101577993744884_358703351333889271_n

Names like Google, Microsoft, Nokia,  MED-EL,Harley Davidson, ITC Maurya, Lemon Tree, Forever Mark Diamond Pvt. Ltd., TATA CliQ, We Media Works, Chill Bey, C’est La Vie, Styling Scissors, Madison & Pike, The Social Street, Hotel Red Fox and even a filling station  BP came forward in support blazing the way for their people to pick up the torch to carry the dream into the hearts of hundreds. School children from  Scottish High International School, and from  The Close South, a condominium in Gurgaon, fashioned masterpieces with the two colors winning the joys of many. College students stepped up through the Blue Pencil Blog creating a platform to better understand the chromosomally enhanced who enhance the lives of each one they touch with their beautiful hearts that abound with pure happiness.

Siblings shared journeys of their lives with their very best brothers and sisters.  Parents smiled at their progeny who were successful in every way that society deemed them incapable of. Organisations like MUSKAAN that provide opportunities to the differently abled shared their immense capabilities.   Numerous empathetic individuals also stepped up, ripples are spreading far and wide. Hope has been created. The horizon of many found expansion and the diligent efforts of the organizers were realized.

The busy organizers now work even harder for the next date 2nd of April for World Autism Day. So how about it, will you also join in the efforts to create a better tomorrow?



Empty Platitudes


Recently a very dear friend suffered a huge setback. Her father had been confined to bed for many years, now her mother who had been the primary caregiver for her dad suffered a stroke. My friend, an only child, rushed to her hometown to be with her infirm parents. In her own home, many, many miles away, was a teenage son studying in the 12th Grade and a husband who has a job that necessitates a lot of travel.

There she was torn by love at both ends. Her parents, both confined to bed, on one and her husband and child on the other.  A supporting spouse and a mature child helped her cope with the situation, so she turned her attention to where it was needed most.  In the early days, I was unable to speak to her she was handling a lot and for obvious reasons needed to concentrate her energies on the constantly developing situation in front of her.

My friend is a vibrant person, whenever we spoke we have only laughed be it the mundane or the difficult she has always managed to look at things from a quirky point of view. My thoughts were with her constantly, worrying and wondering how she would cope.  Life had suddenly thrown her a curve ball the like of which I had never heard of. Caring for one ageing and infirm parent is tough enough; she had two to take care of at the same time.  I was in my teens when my ageing Grandmother had been confined to the bed for five years and I had seen what my parents went through in those tough times. So yes, I worried and wondered and worried some more for this friend whose spirit through thick and thin has always laughed and made me laugh along with her.

I worried when I thought of her taking decisions that would determine the course of her parents’ healthcare. Are any of us ever prepared to take such decisions? I worried about her support mechanism. Who was there standing besides her helping? From the outside everyone can advise, but she was the one ultimately who would live with the consequences.

I wondered if people were calling her telling her to be brave. To be resilient in the face of adversity. To take it one day at a time. Some would say you have the strength you just need to find it. Others would tell her that its karma and she has a part to play. Some old school folk, I knew would try to encourage by saying she was ‘blessed’ to be paying back the debt that is owed to parents. Telling her that this was the greatest duty and that she was noble soul for having undertaken it.  I put myself in her shoes and another thought started to trouble me, would I want to hear all this?

In a flash the answer came No!!

Why do we mouth such tired expressions to people going through difficult times. How do such phrases help anyone? Does it encourage them or are we assuaging our guilt for not being able to do more? These are questions to which I have no answers. But, what is very clear to me is the fact that a person dealing with a tough situation does not want to hear mere platitudes from me, they want me to just listen to them. Can I not do that thinking of their needs rather than my own?

A few days later after having got her life under control as it were, we finally spoke. The first thing she said to me was, “Babe, make me laugh!” That was what she needed and I did just that!

Later I also listened when she shared the pain that she was in, the conflicting emotions that she goes through every day. Watching her parents in that state. Her child and her husband far away in a home that she hasn’t been able to go back to since the fateful day that her mother collapsed.  Every day she wakes up to a choice that was not hers, but she made it. A lot has happened in these days and I will need another post to express the myriad emotions that she has shared and I have felt with her.

Empathy a Point of View

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view” –Harper Lee

facebook banner


During my tenure as a Primary School teacher I had the privilege of having special needs children in my classrooms. My first introduction to a special needs child was in a mentor’s Grade 1 Classroom during my training period. The task for that day was to observe the Educator’s interaction with the children. My attention was drawn almost immediately to a child who towered above the rest and was mumbling to himself. Since I knew I too would soon be taking over my own classroom, I was keen to learn from my mentor how she incorporated the needs of this child with the rest of the group. What I saw that day humbled me. My mentor’s patience and her absolute devotion to her group of children was not unknown to me.

How I was humbled.

But, it was the children in that classroom that taught me the most. There was to be a group activity that day. Team leaders were chosen by the Educator and she asked them to choose the other members of their team one by one. I expected this child to be the last to be chosen and already a wave of pity overcame me. That he would be the first to be chosen surprised me and I was even more surprised with the fact that the other team leaders looked disappointed. One very helpful and talkative young lady sitting next to me whispered, that team is sure to win, he’s our classes’ good luck charm.

Through the day I watched the children as they took him under their wing helping him, and guiding him for all the activities of the day. For them this child was no different from them. I adopted the same philosophy in my own classrooms and was blessed to work with these beautiful children who not only respond to the love that we give them, in return they leave us far richer.

My learning grew further.

While all my children and almost all their parents were supportive of their friends I have had my share of difficult questions by parents. But then how could I blame them, they came from a place where they only thought of the needs of their own children. The first few times I was confronted by some of these parents I reacted with anger and tried to make them feel small for their pettiness, as you can imagine that did not go down very well. Then I hit open a novel approach, I asked them to speak to their own children about the child whose presence in the class was of concern to them. Needless to say they never came back to me.

As a society we have come a long way from the times when the differently abled were ostracized and hidden away in homes. I did not study in a school that had integrated learning facilities, my own children do and it makes me so proud to see them develop compassion for their friends. Human actions and consciousness both shape and are shaped by surrounding cultural and social structures. And empathy is the key to understanding, when we learn to walk in the shoes of others we will bring hope to the countless in need of it. Let us learn from our children.

2nd April, 2017. Are we really  that different?

I wrote this post a year back, today in honor of World Autism Awareness Day I am updating it with a few more thoughts that I have  understood with 365 days more added to my search for understanding.  Empathy is a feeling that can come naturally to many, but many a times empathy can also be developed.  Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice puts it perfectly through his speech on Common Universal Humanity, fans of the Bard will remember the lines “If you cut us do we not bleed,” to understand where I am going with this. Without regurgitating the entire speech here I shall come to the point. People with Autism feel the same love, happiness, pain, sadness just like any of us. In fact sometimes they feel each of these emotions to a far larger extent than us. They just express it in a different way than us. But, feel they do.

How to find Empathy.

Who among us cannot recall situations in which we have felt left out, been the underdog or just a misfit. Do you remember those times? Do you remember the hurt that caused? Do you remember how it corroded your self-esteem? If you do, transfer that pain to the part of your psyche that does not understand the need for inclusion. Sit on the bench of hurt for a while. Reflect.  I am hoping now you will find that simple human quality that will set you apart. It is called Empathy.

How can we ensure that we are as inclusive as we can be?

Do not avoid. Do not look away. Speak to these beautiful people just as you would to any interesting stranger. But tread with caution, do not give them a verbal overload. Then give them time to respond they take time to organize their thoughts. Be patient. Be positive. Be supportive. Give them  Love and find it making its way back to you a thousand fold.

Infographic poster_new