By Grant Jacobs 12/11/2017 2

Short version: don’t. Be a wee bit careful about empathy, too. Why to not offer sympathies for disabilities is worth knowing. It’ll help you be kind to others in many situations, and to write or talk about disabilities and difficulties better. There’s a connection with science and science communication, too. A mantra about kindness that circulates in science communication and science circles, goes to the effect “Everyone here is smart, so distinguish yourself by being kind.” This is part of that, too, I guess.

In a recent article I used my hearing loss as an example of an effect of a vaccine-preventable illness, and to illustrate that affects from illnesses can be life-long. One commenter* opened their response by expressing their ‘sorrow’ at my hearing loss. For me this offering sympathy was merely a familiar irritation, but, really, don’t be that person. It can be deeply upsetting to others not as well placed to take it mildly. On another day I might not have myself.

I’ll use deafness as the disability in my examples, but the issues I introduce will apply to most disabilities and to many non-disability conditions. I’m using deafness simply because it’s something I understand well, and because I understand the social context.

I’m writing about those disabled most or all of their life, although it’ll apply in some ways to those that became disabled later in life, too. I just don’t have experience of that to relate to.

Why avoid sympathy?

Several reasons, but two main ones:

1. Sympathy vs empathy

While empathy can be fine—if offered with understanding—but most disabled people don’t want sympathy. The two are poles apart.

Sympathy is about expressing “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune”.** Disabled people don’t want to be pitied. Why would they? It has the effect of belittling them.

Empathy, on the other hand, is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”.** It’s a very different thing. That’s more about the problems the person faces, and your being able to relate to them.

It can be tricky, though. Unless you know the disability well enough, you’re fairly unlikely to be able to relate to it properly. This is true even for common disabilities like loss of hearing or sight,*** things that people might expect to be able to easily relate to.

It leads to that frustrating thing where you want to express something about the difficulties someone faces, but can’t.

A possible solution is to say or write something neutral that allows them space to fill you in if they would like to. More directly you could ask questions, but be thoughtful about them.

There’s a lot written about sympathy vs. empathy. Some point out sympathy acts to seperate rather than engage. Others point to that sympathy focuses on what you can’t (easily) do, rather than what you can do, or what it is that you do.

2. Who you define yourself as

Many disabled simply don’t see themselves as disabled, or, more to the point, don’t define themselves in terms of their disability. If you offer sympathy, you’re defining that person in terms they don’t, a sort of straw man that at worse they may resent, and at best they may simply not relate well to.

Think about it. Do you define yourself as “big nose person”? Or, very unkindly but trying to make a point, define a crippled person as “wonky-legged person”?

Yes, people recognise the features they have, but there’s a difference to defining yourself as that feature.

Most people just think of themselves, as, well, themselves. At least that’s my experience of life.

A word of caution about deaf vs Deaf

Some, but not all, deaf people will identify themselves as part of ‘the’ Deaf culture. (Note the difference in capitalisation: they matter. If you get them wrong with the Deaf, you might be in for a visually loud sign language protest!)

Being Deaf is a cultural thing, not a physical one. They’ll be really peeved if you say you’re sorry that they are Deaf! It’d be like saying, “I’m sorry you’re Jewish” or “I’m sorry you’re Hmong”. I think most people have an idea of how well that would go down.

(I’m left ruminating if that’s all that different to saying “I’m sorry you’re deaf”, but it’s depressing so I’m going to pretend I didn’t think that.)


Don’t offer sympathy, and if you offer empathy, it’s usually better to let the person lead you to specifics unless you know the condition (and them) well. Avoid the word ‘sorry’ and it’s synonyms (see also doubling-down below).

And don’t double-down!

I’ve seen similar sympathies offered to women online about various things, often resulting in a strongly-worded response. What you really don’t want to do if the person says they’re unhappy about your pitying is double-down, accidentally (thoughtlessly) or not.

I’ve seen a few do that, and the social media mess that follows can be truly impressive.

One key is to not restate the original sympathy; you’ll only be saying that’s what you meant. Saying “that’s what I meant, but sorry” doesn’t work. That’s a non-apology that re-affirms what you meant! Do that and, whatever your intent, you just doubled-down. (It’s also rather mangled logic anyway.)

Better to simply take back what you wrote. Don’t use the word ‘sorry’ or synonyms – if you’re not careful you’ll evoke sympathy again… Say you screwed up, or apologise for your mistake. (Tip: use ‘apologise’, not ‘sorry”!) Perhaps add that you didn’t mean to belittle or pity them, but be very careful how you phrase that or you may be in for a shitillion of abuse in reply.

Further reading on Code for life

Minorities, disabilities and scientists


Rubella, not a benign disease if experienced during early pregnancy

Temperature-induced hearing loss

Enabling deaf people to text emergency calls to 111

Bionic ears let the deaf hear


Occasionally I write on general topics at a tangent to science proper, most often leaving them for weekends. We all need a break every now and then.

I got that line “Everyone here is smart, so distinguish yourself by being kind” from Kate Hannah. I’ve no idea if it starts with her. (I should, ask eh? Maybe once this piece is up.)

On defining who you are, there is a ‘danger’ in defining yourself in terms of the job you do – one of the (literally) hundreds of topics I ‘keep meaning to’ write about with respect to science and scientists…

* I’m not interested in renewing that conversation, nor making this about him – hence the lack of links or names. I’d rather encourage better practice, and more widely.

** Both taken from the New Oxford Dictionary as offered on Mac OS X. Mine is the American version unfortunately, as I’m reluctant to update the OS while I’m overseas.

*** For what it’s worth, I have a sight loss too. In some ways two sight losses. One from congenital rubella syndrome. The other likely from too much reading as a kid, compounded by age… Being completely blind in one eye has it’s usually minor problems. The other sight loss is one too many of us readers are familiar with! 🙂 LOL.

Featured image

Ear trumpets preceded more modern hearing aids. Public domain, source Wikipedia.

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