People may not be what they seem, writes Sya Taha.
Whether we do it consciously or not, and whether we want to or not, we usually judge people based on how they look or sound. It takes a monumental effort to get past this and educate ourselves to realise that even though someone may look a certain way, his or her true self may be something completely different.
And you know what? It’s completely normal. Judging a person based on outer appearances plays a big role in how we decide our next actions for our own survival: is this person safe to approach, or should we stay away?
But I can only speak for myself. While I may not have had malicious intentions in judging someone, it can have real consequences for the person’s dignity. I experienced this most painfully when I was confronted with many people of varying levels of physical and mental disabilities.
My sister, Syiqah, gets around in a wheelchair because she has a condition called spinal muscular atrophy. When she and I went to religious classes in our younger days, the mosque we went to was not wheelchair-accessible. We had to gather two or three young men each week to carry her wheelchair down three big steps to where the classrooms were, before rearranging the wall panels to let her into the classroom. This process was repeated after class. Many thanks to these young men, but sometimes I wished that we didn’t have to make such a grand entrance into class every Sunday.
To me, my sister is just a normal person because we grew up together and I know what she is like. She may not be able to walk or do many things that able-bodied people take for granted, but she’s amazingly smart and works hard, and achieves much more this way. And by the way, she is a Paralympian who represents Singapore in the sport of Boccia.
In 2010, I found myself unexpectedly thrust into the role of her sports assistant and caregiver for an international competition in Europe. Her usual assistant had visa issues and she asked me to step in two weeks before the competition date. I figured I would just listen to what she told me to do. What I didn’t expect was how the experience would change my worldview.
Boccia is a target game played in mixed-gender singles or in teams. The goal is to get the most number of one’s own balls closest to the white target ball, known as the jack. Each ball that is closer to the jack than the next closest ball of the opponent, at the end of four rounds, determines the number of points and thus the winner.
There are four categories for the game, with the first two reserved for athletes with cerebral palsy. The last two categories are reserved for athletes with different conditions that result in limited control of their upper bodies – such as muscular dystrophy or spinal muscular atrophy. Before each competition, athletes are classified into one of the four categories based on their ability to throw or catch the soft leather balls.
I had never met anyone with cerebral palsy before helping my sister out, and I was never aware of how much this condition could vary. For example, while the other athlete on our team could speak (and who often apologised if she hurt us accidentally during her involuntary limb spasms), many others in the competition used customised sign language, which only people close to them could understand.
The media is often the biggest influence on how we perceive people with disabilities. For example, television sitcoms in Singapore that include a mentally challenged character usually get the actor to imitate the spasms and movements similar to cerebral palsy. However, this condition varies tremendously; many people with this condition are highly functional and can pursue higher education with the right facilities.
Unfortunately, many people also tend to assume that someone with physical disabilities also has mental ones. For example, my sister has had many people speak to her as if she could not understand English, as if she had limited cognitive development, or as if she was not even present in the room.
During this competition, I remember one player in particular – a teenage boy from Colombia named Ferney. He smiled easily but had difficulty controlling his movements and articulating words. We met when my sister played against him, and the most I managed to communicate was with my halting Spanish through his sports assistant, a young woman named Deisy.
I added him on Facebook and there I managed to communicate with him for the first time. While he used discreet sign language with his coach, he could also type on a special keyboard (our communication barrier then shifted to my limited proficiency in Spanish). With the help of a keyboard (and Google Translate for me), we were able to have a conversation on Facebook chat!
I realised that because I had unconsciously decided that I was not able to communicate with someone with cerebral palsy, I had almost prevented myself from knowing Ferney’s true self. If I had not added him on Facebook, I wouldn’t have known that he was studying and doing well in school.
In the book To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the lawyer Atticus Finch dwells on the importance of seeing things from other people’s perspectives: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it’.
I once asked my sister what it felt like, being her. She said that while she knows she is disabled, she does not feel disabled because she was born with the condition. To her, asking her if she would like to walk is like asking us if we would like to fly.
We may not be able to stop ourselves from unconsciously judging someone, whether on the basis of their wheelchair, their tattoos or their hijab (or lack thereof). But let’s try to push beyond our comfort zone and understand that all human beings are equal in the sight of God, and that the only judgement due on us is on our level of piety (49:13) – something that only God can decide.
This article is based on a blog post by the author