Sir Harry Burns and Compassion

By Ross Maxwell

By Ross Maxwell

Out walking my dogs with a friend one day, we met various passers-by, and with everyone he exchanged greetings and a smile. There were nods of acknowledgment all round, “great weather”:  “lovely day”.   Then a young man approached in a wheelchair, which was being pushed by another adult. My friend said nothing, and ignored him. He behaved differently. I asked: “Why didn’t you speak to the disabled lad?

He responded: “Well, I didn’t know if he would understand.”

I explained to my friend that he would have lost nothing if this was the case– but if the lad had understood, it would have made his day. I was met with incomprehension, about how such a small thing could be so important. A practical demonstration was necessary. I borrowed an electric wheelchair for a reality lesson.

THE PLAN: We would retrace our steps, this time he would be driving a wheelchair instead of walking. As an experienced driver – having tackled the Ice Roads in Canada and driven throughout Europe, he was not at all concerned.  Intelligent and articulate, he felt that the experience would be exhilarating and exciting.

THE LEARNING CURVE: The first difficulty was the problem of control – the sensitivity of the power chair – every tiny correction leading to a massive change in direction. Attempting to become accustomed to  used to the vagaries of control, this experienced  driver of Heavy Goods Vehicles  admitted to being quite terrified when the surface was uneven However, with perseverance and practice, he eventually felt competent to undertake the route.

THE ACCOMPLISHMENT: At our destination, he sat in this wheelchair and the same distance was covered. Similar people were met. And although he drove very well, and was proud of his achievement, he had not anticipated the loneliness. Nobody made eye contact with him or looked in his direction. Nobody said hello – or  commented on his  competence in controlling the chair. His presence was ignored.

THE OUTCOME: He returned home, thoughtful and pensive – and rather depressed. It had opened his eyes to his own behaviour and the problem was finally understood. If someone  – anyone – had said “hello” it would have made all the difference in the world.

I then told him of my experience in Egypt – how being bothered by street traders everywhere, my guide advised:

“Don’t meet their eyes. If you avoid eye contact, you disempower them.”

He was right. It was a very effective tool. However, such disempowerment must be used carefully and sensitively or alienation occurs inappropriately.

Compassion, and the very real power it wields,  must not be forgotten.

As Sir Harry says in his talk, it is now forty years since a man from Glasgow spoke so forcibly on this topic that the speech, which was reported in full in the New York Times, was hailed as “the most important piece of oratory since the Gettysburg Address”. His definition describes so many facets of life which not only  the able-bodied find challenging, but also, more stridently, those with disabilities.

“Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.” (Jimmy Reid, 1971)

Below is a link to the full speech, which those who heard it will never forget.

Forty years ago it was widely reported – widely read – widely understood.  The progress that has been made to date has not been impressive. Lack of compassion is killing people – but what is to be done?

We need to look more clearly at ourselves, our actions and their repercussions.

©Linda Jane McLean

One thought on “Sir Harry Burns and Compassion

  1. Hi Linda, Just doing a goolge search for Dr. Harry Burns and I came across your site. Thanks for the article. I will listen to the speech. I will be coming to Europe in June. You might be interested in my blog which explains my project. Best wishes, Janet

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