Bethesda Institute

Disability and Pity


Recently I attended a “lunch and learn” where I work. A lunch and learn is where staff get together to discuss a topic, while you eat your lunch.  The topic this day was about pity and people with disabilities. The discussion was based around a documentary by Drew Morton Goldsmith.

Connie Horn - Bethesda Institute

Connie Horn


If you wish me well, do not stand pitying me, but lend me some succor as fast as you can; for pity is but cold comfort when one is up to the chin in water, and within a hair’s breadth of starving or drowning. – AESOP, Fables

Whether you are young or old, rich or poor, male or female, or have a disability or not, chances are you would never want someone to pity you. Yet, many people think pity is ok as long as they do it to someone else.

Many people without disabilities see people with disabilities as people wearing their flaws on their sleeve, and they are compelled to help, to sympathize, and to show pity. The pity itself is not the problem. It is the presumption that a person with a disability has a problem, a flaw, something to be ashamed of, or be embarrassed about. The assumption is made that people with disabilities are unhappy and/or unfulfilled.


What message does pity send?

  • Instead of focusing on what a person can do by embracing all their strengths and gifts, pity limits a person.
  • Pity promotes the view of charity rather than the view of inclusion.
  • Pity lowers an individual’s self-esteem.
  • Pity towards people with disabilities gives society the false impression that disability and happiness cannot coexist.

I believe the vast majority of people with disabilities do not want to be pitied. Sometimes they want help, sometimes they want sympathy and sometimes they just want someone to care. But to be pitied… no.

Empathy, Compassion, Understanding

Empathy or compassion or understanding on the other hand…that’s different. “Wow, the world is not built for you, is it? What can I do about it?” You may not necessarily share all of their values and interests, but you acknowledge the person deserves the same services, human rights, and freedoms that we all do.

Parents, family members and people with disabilities are tired of being invisible and are declaring their right to an equal chance at life. They want to be understood and recognized for who they are, for their humanity…without pity.


Many people in our society consider people with disabilities to be childlike, helpless, hopeless and noncontributing members of society. The pity and charity approach is still used in public fundraising campaigns despite protests from organizations and people with disabilities. A pity approach to fund-raising has contributed to these prejudices. It reinforces the public’s tendency to equate a person with a disability with total hopelessness.

I leave you with the following questions…

  • Playing to pity may raise money, but does it raise walls of fear between the public and people with disabilities?
  • Why do charities still use the pity card to raise money? Is it because pity happens to be very effective at luring people to donate money?
  • Does giving to a charity fulfill a person’s need to feel good about themselves?
  • Are the lives of people with disabilities truly improved by the charities that exploit them? In my opinion if it is truly to help, the fundraiser must show people with disabilities working, raising families, and generally sharing in the community.

Connie Horn, education consultant for the Bethesda Institute, provides training and consultation services to improve supports for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She is also a script writer for staff training DVDs, a curriculum developer and a writer for Insider, a free monthly e-newsletter for support providers.


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