This entry originally appeared on my disability blog, I hate stairs.

There, I said it. Feels better already. I consider myself to be what I call a “conflict avoider.” If I can help it, I’m going to stay out of situations of conflict. I sometimes see two or more parties disagree on something in such a way that the conflict of the disagreement is at an uncomfortable level. A friendly, or perhaps even intense, debate is one thing. But when disagreement results in too much anger or hatred, it bothers me. It’s even worse when a conflict spirals out of control. Often times, what is just a small insignificant concern can turn into a nuclear mushroom cloud in the time it takes to say “Oppenheimer.” Lately, I’ve been wondering why this happens. I attribute conflict in part to the differences in people’s context.

People operate out of different—sometimes opposing—contexts. Let’s take American politics for example. Conservatives look at government as an intrusive entity abusing its power by eating away at the citizen’s personal liberty. Liberals look at government as an extension of the people charged with the responsibility of making sure that all citizens, especially ones with more potential to be marginalized, are taken care of. Both are well-intentioned at a conceptual level although I would argue that there are politicians on both sides that have less than pure motives. So it can be irritating at times to see liberals and conservatives react to each other as if each side has completely extreme views. Conservatives, is it really so shocking that liberals support [insert entitlement program here]? Liberals, should you really be upset that conservatives support [insert spending cut here]?1 I’m not really trying to discuss the ideas surrounding government spending. I’m just illustrating how people, usually with good intention, work out of their own contexts.

When I talk about someone operating out of one’s context, I’m referring to how one thinks, how one feels, what one believes, what one values, and what one does based on these things. You might just say I’m talking about one’s worldview. And when it comes to my worldview or context, my disability is a major influence. If anything, having a disability has taught me to be aware of people’s contexts. Don’t judge people prematurely. Don’t make false assumptions about them. I’ve been in some awkward situations due to my disability and I’m sure I’ve left some strange impressions on people. For example, my wheelchair battery was nearly dead one night heading back to my campus apartment from the library. I was traveling very slowly down the sidewalk as my batteries struggled to haul my fat hiney home. Two pedestrians got behind me along the way. I could hear them murmuring under their breaths about how slow I was going. They sighed impatiently, probably hoping I could take a hint.

These two pedestrians were not aware of my context. I was afraid I wouldn’t make it to my apartment. My batteries were dying! Instead of being open to multiple possibilities, these two individuals assumed quickly (and falsely) that I was just an ignorant cripple who at best didn’t realize how much inconvenience I was causing or at worst was being intentionally spiteful.

Another example of “context dissonance,” you might call it, occurred on a discussion board (as it often does) for people with disabilities. One commenter was discussing how her disability can tend to maker feel left out because her friends all have busy lives and she struggles to “keep up” because of the various barriers her disability imposes. Another commenter replied with the “stop complaining” mentality. This is a classic example of two opposing disability contexts. One seeks empathy from like-minded individuals by talking about frustrations. The other seeks to charge head-first into life without time for worrying about disability.

My input in the discussion was that both ways of looking at or coping with life with a disability were fine. But we should be as open-minded as we can about each other’s context. If people want to talk about their frustrations, let them. There’s no need to chastise them.

Understanding people with disabilities is just an exercise in understanding people in general. People are different. People have different worldviews. They operate out of different contexts. I’m not saying you have to be all postmodern and let everyone live in their own reality. You can have disagreement. I would even encourage it! But be friendly about it. Try to be aware of other’s contexts as well as your own. Doing so will cut down on some of the unnecessary conflict in the world. And we could all use a little of that.

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. - Romans 12:18

  1. Anyone who discusses politics is likely guilty of this, myself included.