Walking a mile in their shoes


By Marianne Delorey

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”  -Henry David Thoreau

I have been working in affordable housing for over 25 years. I know about aging and disabilities.  I also know about reasonable accommodations and modifications. I know that not all limitations are obvious to others and I know that many disabilities cannot be seen.

Despite everything I know, every once in a while I get stumped by a reasonable accommodation request. How do I meet that request? Do I really have to? What other ways can we meet that request? What questions can I ask? How do I ask those questions without infringing on the tenant’s privacy?

There are very few one-size-fits-all solutions out there. And the best solutions, especially to unique situations, involve discussion between the landlord and the tenant.

Today’s story is about a tenant who needed a parking spot closer to the building. In elder housing, the vast majority of our residents need close parking, so this alone does not a story make. What makes this interesting is that this tenant is also an avid walker. Her neighbors started asking questions about how she can go walking one day and ask for handicapped parking the next day. Good question, I thought. I will ask.

Exactly how I asked was a challenge. She had certainly provided the appropriate information.  Given what was documented, there was no question she needed the parking spot. I needed to ask gracefully and respectfully, but I also thought I needed to ask. And I did. And here is where I learned. Again. After 25 years in the industry.

You can have a disability and have good days. You can be perfectly well and have bad days.  When you have a disability and you are well, you learn to embrace those days and enjoy the things you always enjoyed. You can exercise and be social and smile and laugh and even go for a walk. Having a good day does not mean that the bad days are gone. Having a good day does not even mean that there are more good days than bad. All it means is that there was a good day.

Some folks are similarly confused by people of limited means who own nicer things.

Three months ago, Congressman Jason Chaffetz had to walk back accusations that poor people sometimes chose an iPhone over health insurance. Several commenters suggested logical explanations for owing an extravagant item – they bought the phone before they became poor, they bought an older model phone, it was a gift, or (gasp) they saved their money.

Poor people should not have to justify how they spend their limited funds, and disabled people should not have to justify how they spend their good days. When you have the energy to enjoy life, we should all feel justified in living.

I am always grateful for the opportunity to learn from people who help me understand the world. I am most grateful to those who help me relearn the most important lessons in life.  Deepening the mental path of empathy is truly one of life’s greatest goals.

Marianne Delorey, Ph.D. is the executive director of Colony Retirement Homes. She can be reached at 508-755-0444 or mdelorey@colonyretirement.com and www.colonyretirementhomes.com. Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com.