Friday, 5 July 2013

Are You Coping?

Today I went to the Oxford Eye Hospital for my annual check up. Although my underlying eye condition - coloboma - has been stable since I was born, I have cataracts growing in both eyes which are steadily reducing my already low vision. The size of the Eye Hospital means that I rarely encounter the same doctor twice and today I was seen by yet another ophthalmologist whom I had never met. He explained what I already know: if my eyes were the same shape and size as everyone else's, the cataracts would have been unproblematically removed by now. But the nature of my eyes turns this routine operation into a risky and complicated procedure which he does not want to perform unless he absolutely has to.

This consultant has never met me and he only has a couple of minutes to flick through my notes. These tell him a lot about my eyes but not very much about me as a person. Perhaps this is why, after the eye exam is over, he asks me if I am 'coping'. At first I do not hear him properly and ask him to repeat himself: 'Are you copying with your gradual sight loss?' he asks.

I reassure him that I am 'coping' fine and our interview is over. It is only as I drink my traditional post-appointment latte that I realise that his question has left me feeling upset and a little angry. 'Coping' is not a neutral word: it has very specific connotations and these are always negative. There is a suggestion of 'only just' or 'barely'; 'hardly' or 'just about'. It is the absolute minimum, the lowest common denominator, the barely satisfactory. 'Coping' is a state which is just past 'struggling', on a par with 'surviving' and not quite 'managing'. There is nothing aspirational, optimistic or ambitious about 'coping'. It is a patronising, condescending, word because it assumes that this mediocrity, this unremarkability is enough for me. As long as I am 'coping', my consultant is happy. I think it is his lack of ambition for me, for any of his patients, which upsets me. I wish I had explained this to him. I wish I had said, 'no, I am not 'coping', I am thriving, flourishing, celebrating. I am writing, travelling, living.

It may seem a little extreme to read so much into only one word. (Of course close-reading is what I do best). But my work on representations of disability reveals that societal attitudes are both shaped and expressed through language. The repeated use of words like 'coping' by health professionals will teach society that this is all the disabled can expect. And this reinforces the already widespread view that disability is a life-limiting condition which must be 'suffered', 'endured' or perhaps even  'overcome'.


  1. Hannah, when I got to the section where the doctor asked 'are you coping' I was so pleased for you. Then I read on. Oh? It is interesting for me to read your interpretation as I, with RP, have forever wanted a medical professional to ask me those exact words, to take an interest in me as a person, mentally, not just physically. I do, however, understand your point of view, and hadn't thought of it that way.

  2. Dear Hannah- As I am married to a doctor and hear the other side of the story- dont judge the guy too harshly- he is but mere man!!
    But please realize- he really is trying and mostly they do not mean to be condescending or rude. It is a constant battle to be strong and straight forward and medical that the patient does not have privy to that I see at the end of the day. We cant imagine being in his shoes- no more than I can in yours but that is the way they are trained in medical school to cope with the harsh realities that they cannot help or fix or mend or 35-40 patients they see every day. Their defense mechanism to be objective and look for problems and try to ward off troubles for their patients while dealing with potential for the NHS rules and medical updates. I see that stress at the end of the day and they do feel it. Coping is just a word that needs to used to TRY to sum up the enormity of the human conditions they face. They are trying to cope too. I looked up the meaning and its origin at of interest and here it is
    c.1350, from O.Fr. couper, earlier colper "hit, punch," from colp "a blow" (see coup). Meaning of "come to blows with" evolved 17c. into "handle successfully," I liked the handle successfully part- but my sister Selina and I always argue about the CONQUER ADVERSITY sterotype too- hope to meet you some day- Selina says you are great fun and she enjoyed meeting you so much! KS