Did You Listen?

Leonard Cox is a current OHMA student. In this post, he reflects on what it means to truly listen. Watch the full lecture on YouTube.

During a recent forum co-sponsored by the Oral History Master of Arts (OHMA) program at Columbia University, guest speaker Ynestra [Nesta] King shared with a group of Oral History students that her life’s work has always been influenced by the notion that listening needs to be egalitarian. “To realize every individual’s point of view matters, and has something to teach us, is the kind of empathy that is quite often denied women with disabilities, especially poor women with disabilities,” she said.

King, who is Co-Director and Interviewer for the Women and Disability Documentary Project, collaboration between the Barnard College Center for Research on Women and Columbia University Center for Oral History Research, relied on this philosophical pillar to frame her work. This audio excerpt from her remarks describes one of her key goals for the project:

Listening to King describe an interview she conducted with a disabled woman who had spent most of her life homeless, I was confronted with the fact that we need to record, and listen to, more narratives from homeless women with disabilities.

Listening, and deeply listening, is one of the greatest gifts we can give to another person.  Admittedly, across different cultural contexts listening has historically been stilted. Yet, each of us can probably list examples of how deep listening resulted in positive change. 

Talking about her documentary project, King said, “The work of telling and hearing the life stories of marginalized women by engaging in the slow process of oral history contributes to personal and political empowerment and democratic social change.”

King’s words reminded me of my experiences as a volunteer at a shelter for homeless women.  Over a stretch of 28 years, I have met many homeless women with disabilities.  Their stories are often heartbreaking.

A very common story is how often disabled women are pushed and shoved as a passerby scurries along the sidewalk.  Their stories acknowledge that many places where homeless women tend to cloister in New York City are inaccessible for someone with disabilities. Another repeated story is how people shout and scream at homeless women with disabilities, telling them that they are “faking it to con people out of money.” The most saddening stories express a sense of loneliness.  I consistently hear women at the shelter say that they don’t have anyone “who is willing to listen.”

Mary has been coming to the shelter for dinner for many years. As a result of a severe stroke, she needs a walker to get around. The right side of her body is withered. She walks with a noticeable limp. Her smile, albeit still beautiful, is formed by a half-crescent of her numb lips. In addition, she is now speech-impaired.

When she first returned to the shelter after having the stroke, I asked her what I could do to help.  She said, “Don’t feel sorry for me.” Admittedly, it has been hard not to feel sorry for her. Her health services are limited and inadequate. At the organizations where she does seek health services, she often has to stand in long lines and complete mountains of paperwork, only to be denied access to an effective physical therapy routine.  She struggles to walk down the street.  In order for her to eat, her food must be processed in a blender.  She constantly has to wipe saliva off her chin.

One night, after I served her dinner, I took off my apron and sat down to have a chat. I asked her again, “What can I do for you? What do you need?”

In response, she said, “Did you listen to me?” Embarrassingly, I couldn’t make out her words and had to ask her to repeat what she had just said.  In a raised voice, and at a much slower pace, Mary said, “Did you listen to me? Did you really listen to me? I don’t want you to feel sorry for me!”

On the walk home that night, I realized I had indeed not been listening. I heard her words but I wasn’t abiding by the meaning embedded in what she said.  My pity and concern had stigmatized her disabilities. Since that night, I try to think of her as Mary—and not as Mary, whose body has been damaged.

While I still have difficulty understanding some of her words, I find myself listening more deeply. Her voice is meaningful. Her story is important. King’s remarks at the OHMA workshop have prompted me to schedule a time to record Mary’s oral history. Stay tuned!