“Disability awareness is important everywhere, but especially in schools,” she says. “This is because the younger you are when you’re introduced to a concept, the more natural it seems to you. Schools are the ideal environment to do this, in part because they create a space where students can ask questions about diverse experiences without seeming rude or unkind, but are just curious.”
Willa also believes that it is important that students understand the differences between empathy and sympathy (view this video to learn more.) “Empathy and sympathy are really different. Empathy is getting on the same level as another person, and really trying to understand whatever is happening. It’s connection at the deepest degree, when you’re not necessarily able to put the way you’re feeling into words, but the other person gets it so you don’t even have to try,” she says. “Sympathy is almost the polar opposite — it appears to be a connection, but it isn’t. It’s synonymous with pity.
She believes schools should start promoting empathy as soon as they can. “By teaching students about the reasons people might feel what they feel and helping students learn to ‘walk a mile’ in somebody else’s shoes, empathetic thinking can become second nature,” she says.
High schools can be a challenging place sometimes and Willa says she doesn’t see “a lot of outright bullying,” but more notices the “little things that build up and get under people’s skins, like being left out of a group project or having nowhere to sit at lunch or when teasing is taken too far to the point that it actually hurts one’s feelings.” To combat this, Willa believes that other students should practice empathy and need to call these behaviors out.