a.k.a. “Untaught vs Unlearned”

Read Part One of this Series: On Willful Ignorance (Part 1 of 3) a.k.a. “The Grandparent Handout”

Last week I introduced a topic that really fires me up: willful ignorance.

To quickly recap: What I call “willful ignorance” is when a person refuses to listen or to learn anything new because they already believe that either:
a. They know it all, or
b. They already know the “right” way, so any new information is a waste of their time.
Then, their ignorance causes them to be rude and unkind in their interactions.

Willfully ignorant people are hands-down THE #1 hardest part of having a disabled child. That’s because the willfully ignorant are full of unsolicited and inaccurate advice. They will tell you the opposite of what your Pediatricians and therapists are telling you, and they will tell it with authority and volume.

The willfully ignorant have also been an unnecessary hardship on my own journey with Clinical Depression and Anxiety.
“Just do it this way,” they insist.
“You wouldn’t have this problem if you…” they claim.
“There sure is a lot of this ‘depression’ stuff doing going around isn’t there?” they undermine and mock.

Lord knows there are more than enough articles, books, studies, and awareness campaigns out there to educate these people. If only they wanted to learn…

Now, I am NOT suggesting that every person in the world needs to have a complete and working knowledge of every disease in the world so they can never ever misstep or misspeak or cause any cringy moments for another soul ever, ever.

That is ridiculous and impossible.

No one can have a complete, and ever-updating medical textbook in their head. (Not even doctors have that.)

But everyone can be kind.

It is one thing to be unknowledgeable, curious, or concerned. That is okay. You can be unknowledgeable, curious, or concerned and still be kind.

It is a different thing entirely–a 100% NOT OKAY thing–to bully someone for having a different experience than your own. It is not okay to loudly declare that something does not exist simply because you have never personally encountered it, or to tell someone they are wrong because their life is not a carbon-copy of your own. This is unkind, and unacceptable. This is willfully ignorant.

An Illustration: Many years ago (we’re talking 25+ here), I read a short story in a children’s book. It was so long ago that I don’t remember the title of the story, but I do remember one impactful line.

The story was about a Prince who was born blind. Being blind and the youngest Prince (with healthy older brothers to be heirs and take care of the kingdom), meant that this Prince was taken care of completely, and had servants to do everything for him.

In a twist of fate, this Prince and an old wise Knight found themselves the only two people left to save his older brothers (and by extension, the whole kingdom) from a dragon.

Immediately, the Prince hit a roadblock. He couldn’t even ride out of the city with the Knight because he didn’t know how to saddle or ride a horse. He was deeply ashamed by his helplessness, when the Knight spoke these words:

There is no shame in being untaught. Only in being unlearned.

Being taught is not something that we all have equal access to. Education and experiences rely heavily on the ability and willingness of others to invest us. Parents, teachers, coaches, etc… first must care, then must be willing to teach, and thirdly, must be able to teach in a way that you understand, before you can be taught. Not all of us are fortunate enough to have people like this in our lives. In addition, education and experiences differ across generations, cultures, and tax bracket. Not all of us are fortunate enough to have access to a full education due to gender, geography, or finances.

When it comes to knowledge and awareness of others, (including knowledge of Depression/mental health issues, and disabilities) I would be willing to bet that most of us have simply been untaught. We were never made aware. We were never given the opportunity to meet and learn about people outside of our own bubbles.

There is no shame in being untaught…

On the flipside, when opportunities are available to learn, and we refuse to even try, that is on us.

  • If someone tries to tell you about a struggle they have, but you talk over them and constantly give your “2 cents” without ever properly listening to them, that is on you.
  • If someone posts an article about their medical condition on social media “so friends/family can understand what’s happening with me,” and you never read it, that is on you.
  • When you are invited to a free information seminar on disabilities in the workplace, etc… but you don’t go, that’s on you.
  • If you hear that your relative or friend has been diagnosed with a disease, and you don’t even Google it, that is on you.
  • When someone you are with asks you to do something (like face them when you speak so they can read your lips, etc…) and you refuse to do it, that is on you.
  • When a parent at a family gathering tries to tell you how to interact with their disabled child, and you blatantly ignore what they are saying, tell them why they are wrong, and insist on doing the opposite, that is on you.

If you have been given the opportunity to learn about someone so you can be kinder and more understanding toward them, but you have refused to listen, refused to learn, refused to accommodate, refused to even try…


For anyone who feels uneasy around those with disabilities or other illnesses you are unfamiliar with, and are worried that you might be one of these terrible “willfully ignorant” people I am talking about, please let me assure you:

1. Normal everyday ignorance (not knowing something) is not a moral failing. Treating someone disrespectfully or unkindly because you don’t understand them is the moral failing.

2. It is completely okay to…

  • Look up information.
  • Ask for resources.
  • Ask questions in a curious, non-judgmental tone of voice.
  • Explain that you have no experience with the illness/disability but would like to be taught.
  • Ask someone if they are comfortable/willing to share their story with you.
  • Ask to be trained before you can comfortably commit to babysitting or volunteering with people who have different needs and abilities. (Please do!)

Asking genuine questions is not rude or unkind or “willfully ignorant.” Quite the opposite!

People feel respected when you care enough to learn about their struggles and victories, and try to see from their point of view. Kind people respect others by asking and listening, before acting.

I can sum up this week’s post much the same as I did last week:
It’s not the amount of knowledge you have or don’t have that is the problem.
The problem is how you treat people that you cannot relate to.
The problem is when you have the opportunity to learn how to treat people better, and refuse.

Do the best you can until you know better.
Then when you know better, do better.

Maya Angelou

If you have been hurt by a “willfully ignorant” friend or family member, you are not alone. You are welcome to support one another in the comments or social media pages below.

© 2022 Ashley Lilley – First time commenting? Please read my Comment Policy.

6 thoughts on “On Willful Ignorance (Part 2 of 3)

  1. Thank you for speaking to this in, what I see as, a kind and balanced way.
    Yes, kindness always. And people can even be untaught in how to speak kindly.
    Keep up the good posts!


    1. Thank you. I realize that change doesn’t usually come when someone feels attacked, so the challenge is to communicate that there is a problem, and that the problem is bad, but in a way that encourages people to want to do something about it instead of “doubling down.”
      It’s a challenging line to walk!


  2. You are so right. Kindness first and always. And even if I “think” I know something about a condition, I have found that everyone experiences things differently: for example, just because I know how I experience depression doesn’t mean I know how anyone else experiences it. I’ve learned that listening with the beginner’s mind is a good place to be and helps others to share as much or as little as they are comfortable sharing. I love your suggestions, especially the one about asking to be trained before volunteering with people who have different needs and abilities.


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