Ill-informed: The spectrum of understanding

This is the first installment of SIN’s newest column ‘Ill-informed’, written by Jennifer O’Connor, a member of the Disability Support Services in NUI Galway.

So many facets of life are described in terms of spectrums. A spectrum is thought of by many as a scale of progression describing colours, life stages and on occasion, disability, or illness. For those with such intimate knowledge of a particular spectrum it can be hard to take a step back. When this is the case, the in-depth understanding of an illness or disability can colour your view of everything. I imagine to myself that it is similar to how an engineer does not simply see the same construction site other pedestrians do, but instead sees every nut and bolt that makes it so.

I will not attempt to generalize the wealth of disabilities represented at NUI Galway, particularly when I only have experience with a specific branch of chronic illness. To do so would not only be disrespectful, but also pointless. For those of you students who are not members of the Disability Support Services you do not need lengthy descriptions of pain to trigger your empathy or encourage you to cease procrastinating through your own struggles and simply join the Services should you need to. You need to understand the effect, not the cause as that is something all we ill and disabled people can understand.

In December, it was the last day of the Semester One exams and in some ways, a victorious day for all of us disabled students who have made it this far. I was sitting in my comfortable chair at my computer in the PC Suite I had been assigned and was taking full advantage of the extra twenty minutes I was allowed. Upon glancing to the familiar, non-descript round clock that had been carelessly erected onto the wall by my desk, I felt a rush of pride for all of us in the room. To my left was a boy who was anxiously glancing from his calculator to his computer screen every few seconds. I met the gaze of the girl to his left for a moment and we both smiled sympathetically, hoping the boy was not on the verge of a panic attack. In that moment, there was a sense of unity in the room as more pairs of eyes met mine and more smiles followed.

Yet, why is it that despite the growing sense of warmth in my chest, that I felt a disparity between myself and the word ‘disabled’.

Perhaps it was the incomplete jigsaw in my mind that reminded me that I was appallingly uninformed about disabilities. In truth, had I not become sick myself I would likely have avoided the truth at all opportunities. My eager mind-set towards broadening all aspects of my education seemed to halt rather sharply when it came to disabilities – so much so that my sympathetic face when a friend explained her chronic endometriosis had become a party piece I had perfected.

It is all very different when you are the one seeking understanding and an open mind. I had never quite understood my cousin’s cerebral palsy, or my mother’s persistent migraines. Now, I can admit to myself that I did not want to understand them. Why would I want to expose my sheltered realm of health to the harsh struggles of those who seemed all too distant from me? What could I hope to gain, but understanding and what was that truly worth?

In short, your empathy is worth nothing to you. You will neither feel better nor worse for showing an interest in anyone’s struggle. In truth, you might feel bored.

But to that disabled person, or chronically ill student who can’t cope with the stairs to the library from the SU shop, you will be the reason they go home and cry that day at having felt heard for the first time. I have cried many times due to the kindness of friends and strangers. There is no more genuine or honest cry. If you can give someone that gift, it will only cost you time – but nothing else.


In writing this, I have given some thought to why it is I feel so at odds with declaring myself as disabled. Yet, I am. I also have blue eyes and a great appreciation for well used sarcasm. In this college, we build careers upon facts. Our favourite lecturers talk in terms of facts. And my – and perhaps yours, or your loved one’s – disability is just that. A fact to be declared and thought of as true.

If we, those members of the DSS, feel any semblance of shame towards our disabilities, we can only expect others’ ignorance and will not see our numbers grow in understanding. I invite you to think, extremely hard, about what it means to be disabled. Does it truly define you anymore than your hair colour? You are still vivacious. You are still capable. You are still alive with the eagerness to improve the world you were born into.

I can only imagine what we may achieve together. Those in need of understanding, standing by those willing to offer such understanding. In the history of our world there has never been a more victorious duo, through the least amount of physical effort.

All it takes is the decision to want to understand.

Then, the rest is yours.

-By Jennifer O’Connor

Image from Huffington Post.



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