The Importance of Universal Respect

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom and author
09/20/22  2:30 PM PST

Empathy is Great. But Respect is Better.

Do you remember that movie Bubble Boy, about the kid (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who lived inside a big plastic bubble? It came out in 2001. It was terrible. The idea however, that we all travel around in our little bubbles of space, occasionally bumping into each other as we move through life is a good one. It’s an adequate picture of the human experience. We strive for sympathy, peering inside someone else’s bubble to learn from them, and if we really get it right, we land on empathy, actually landing inside another human’s viewpoint and seeing the world through their filter.

In science, this idea of our own personal bubble has a name – a term invented by biologist Jakob von Uexküll, called “Umwelt.” In a recent New York Times piece, Ed Yong defines Umwelt as the idea that “every animal exists in its own unique perceptual world – a smorgasbord of sights, smells, sounds and textures that it can sense but that other species might not.” It is, to put it simply, “an animal’s bespoke sliver of reality.”

He goes on to describe a tick’s sensory perception of the aroma of human skin and the heat of blood. Or the shark’s sense of electric fields on the ocean. Did you know the mockingbird has eyes on the side of its head for wraparound vision? That would be nice. For humans, our Umwelt is larger in a different way. I think of the touch of a loved one’s hand on my arm, the smell of a certain relative’s breath at Thanksgiving, the feel of my child’s head under my hand at bedtime. These are particular experiences to me and are charged with an emotional reality that is vastly different from that of the tick or the shark or that mockingbird.

Umwelt offers us the opportunity to make an ideological shift as we consider our place in a world of diverse cultures, abilities, and personal beliefs. It reminds us that we can’t possibility experience everything there is to experience. Our view is uniquely our own and that is incredible and also humbling. It is impossible to know all there is to know. Which means, as we consider those with various disabilities, we must always consider what we do not and cannot know. As Yong puts it in his essay, Umwelt is a reminder “that the all-encompassing nature of our subjective experience is an illusion, at that we sense just a small fraction of what there is to sense.”

We speak of practicing empathy a great deal – that bubble-bursting exploration of someone else’s world. But we do not speak enough of the honest admittance of what we can’t comprehend. My son who has cerebral palsy does not need the society at large to know what it is like for him to navigate this world in his wheelchair. He doesn’t need every individual to practice being nonverbal for a day to gain an understanding of him. What he needs is universal respect.

Our individual Umwelt is a mystery to others. And that makes the world a beautiful and magical place. It also makes every single creature’s experience worthy of regard and appreciation. Empathy is a great goal. But perhaps respect for another’s experience that is not your own is even better.


child with special needs
Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom and author.
Author of the middle-grade novels:


















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