Friday, August 19, 2011

Which Came First: The Egg or Unwanted Assistance

I'm a little disturbed as I write this.

I wish I had way more social skills than I do.

Why aren't you given a crash course in how to 'be' in the world as a wheelchair user?

Today I hurt someone's feelings. Badly, I think. And the thing of it is that I was being really, really pleasant. Maybe 'Peach Pie' pleasant. I'm no where near able to be 'Belinda Apple Pie' pleasant. Anyways, believe me I was nice. I have tried to develop a tone of voice that I can use that can give a command or refuse a request without sounding either harsh, demanding or negative. Though it fails me sometimes, it usually works.

About an hour ago it didn't.

We had gone into the breakfast area of our hotel, the tables were all taken. We saw a fairly high coffee table between two overstuffed chairs and decided to use that. I had just pulled in, Joe had just placed a plate of eggs down beside my cup of tea, when a real table came free. I saw it before Joe did, his back was turned waiting for the toast to pop up. I called to him to grab the table. He immediately placed a plate on it and headed to me to help me with my stuff. A woman passing by saw that we were going to move and rushed over to help by grabbing my plate to move it. She spoke as she moved, 'Here, let me help.' I said, 'Oh, no thanks ...' She said, 'I don't mind ...' still moving towards me. I said, in my Peach Pie voice, 'No, I don't want help, thank you though, but I don't want help.' Her face crumpled in hurt.

I really do appreciate it when people are willing to help. I do. But I also don't want the intervention of strangers into my day, when I don't need it. I do ask for help, the other day in Walmart a kind woman reached a box of pink cookies that I knew Ruby would love - I asked, she helped, it was perfect. I don't like hurting people's feelings in general and I really don't like hurting feelings when the person is intending to be nice. So, she left the situation feeling stung. I left the situation feeling like a shit. No winners here.

I begin to wonder if I should have just let her do what she wanted to do and feel good about it. But the cost would be that I wouldn't feel good about it. So it ends up no one feels good - and yet I think that might be a better outcome.

I'm confused.



CL said...

I find it very understandable that you didn't want her help. This story made me cringe because when you're capable of doing something yourself, and someone jumps in and insists on doing it for you, it doesn't feel good -- especially when it comes from the patronizing assumption that you need help because of something about you (a disability, sex, age, whatever).

As for what to do. Maybe it would work to say something like, "Thanks, but I really value my ability to do things for myself. I'm sorry for refusing, I know it seems weird, but It's important to me. But it's very sweet of you to offer." and smile at her warmly like you're connecting.

That's my usual approach in these situations -- to bluntly explain something uncomfortable in the most charming way possible so that people feel disarmed by the fact that you're confiding in them.

nycivan said...

Dave, Your posts about this trip have really touched me and are a very positive part of my day, thanks.

I wonder if you may be over-thinking it. I personally have had many troubles with my tone and yet I think that there are times (maybe all the time) where I truly do not own how someone else reacts to me taking care of myself. I wonder if your dedication to being a teacher creates an "obligation" in your mind to make sure that this lady was okay with the way you were taking care of yourself, when, in fact, you took care of yourself.

Perhaps the look on her face had absolutely nothing to do with what you said or how you said it, and 100% to do with who she is and how she relates to her world around her?

Further, perhaps you actually did teach her something that she may take forward to the next time she finds herself in a similar circumstance even if in the moment "she left the situation feeling stung" and you left the situation "feeling like a shit."

And even if your tone and manner qualified you to be a certified "shit" in that moment, you know and everyone you know knows that you most certainly will take this lemon and turn it into a delicious drink.

Anyway, thats my 2 cents...

I hope someday to be able to adequately explain how much your writing is helping this very fat, mobility limited, health challenged guy come to terms with all the shit going on around me.

Dark Angel said...

Personally, in a similar situation, I would just let the person help me. Then again, I'm very easy going about that kind of thing, plus I'm blind, which is a completely different disability.
But if I really didn't need/want the help, I think I'd do as the first commenter suggested. Be as charming as I can and say 'it's sweet of you to offer, but I can manage by myself' with a big warm smile.

Anonymous said...

I agree with CL, in fact that response is as near perfect as you can get.

Tamara said...

There could be all kinds of reasons for her face crumbling. Maybe she was just trying to do her random act of kindness for the day and was annoyed because she had to keep looking. :-)

Seriously, though, I like what nycivan said - that moment was more about her than you. When someone says they don't need help, I think it's disrespectful to push it. And it's sufficient to say "no thank you" and leave it at that - every time she asked.

I've been on her side of that interaction before; and when someone says they don't need my help, I smile and say "okay have a nice day!" Interaction done. And it doesn't hurt my feelings that they don't want or need help. It doesn't seem like it ever hurts to ask; however, it seems disrespectful to me to keep asking. And really - I only ask because I don't want to pass someone by who needs help. There's just something about people who insist on doing something you ask them not to do - it's like they have this drive to be in control or something. Something.

Bottom line I'm sure they don't mean to be disrespectful, but I think they are. And reacting civilly is who you are- and that's a good thing, but you shouldn't feel like a shit about it. (Don't you just love it when someone tells you how you should feel? ick, sorry.)

And the other thing is ... I bet she hasn't thought about it since minutes after ...

Anonymous said...

The wheeliecrone says -

I get unwanted offers of help from time to time. The best answer I have managed to come up with, so far, is:
Thank you for offering, but I really prefer to do as much for myself as I possibly can. Thank you. I accompany the words with a big smile.
It isn't a great answer, but it usually appears to work.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading this blog for a while, but this is the first time I have left a comment.

I do not have a disability, so I am a bit reluctant to comment here, but I feel that I have to. I am offered "help" all the time. People will hold the door open for me when I am clearly able to open the door for myself. A simple "thank you" is exchanged, and my day goes on. At work, someone will bring me something from the printer just down the hall, even though I am quite capable of doing it myself. It is called being nice to another human being - don't read more into it.

EmilyWK said...

Sometimes I think people who offer help just want to feel good about themselves - when I am feeling not-so-charitable about the world, that's how it seems. They don't want to do good, they want to feel good.

I can see being a little sad that your kind offer to help was rejected, but what the heck. Just because she thought she was being nice doesn't mean that she was. Intention doesn't hold a lot of weight with me, particularly in situations where the reality and the intention don't match.

ivanova said...

To me, this is a classic choice between taking care of your needs and the needs of other people. There are a lot of times where you can't do both. In a situation where no one is in trouble, and the other person is a stranger, I think the healthy choice is always the one you made: to take care of yourself. All you are required to do is be reasonable, civil and use a pleasant tone, which you did. If she has an out-of-proportion reaction to it, that's not your fault and it doesn't have to be your problem. Maybe this woman was having a terrible day for reasons you don't know, and she was emotionally fragile. If so, you didn't cause that, you also can't control or fix that. Maybe this woman has terrible boundaries and she can't understand why someone would ever tell her no. Same deal, you didn't cause that and you can't control or fix that.

I feel like you shouldn't have to feel disturbed or guilty all day long because of a social misunderstanding of this caliber. I can see how you want to be considerate and thoughtful, but it's counterproductive to feel bad without cause. It is possible to not take on the feelings of strangers, although for a lot of people it's a skill we have to learn, especially if we were raised to believe that we are worthless and only other people's feelings matter. Anyway, that is my perspective on this topic, for what it's worth.

Rachel said...

Anonymous, there is a very different tone sometimes in encounters between somebody with a disability being offered help and a random average person being offered the help. You should see the looks on some faces when I hold doors for them...why yes, I hold doors for other people when I go through them first. Simple courtesy.

People want to help us. The thing is that sometimes we don't want or need it at that particular moment. Note I said at that moment; my usual response is, "I'm fine, thanks, if I need a hand I'll ask, don't worry!" And I will. I know my own limits better than they do. For somebody to think they know what I need more than I, with my 35 years of experience in this body, do comes across as really patronizing. I detest being patronized.

Dave, I can't imagine how you could have responded better, really. Her overreaction is, in the end, her issue. Your saying no thank you in no way made you or her a bad person and you should not feel even a tiny bit bad about it!

Belinda said...

Everything would have been "apple pie nice" :) if she had stopped when you said, "No thanks." She would have offered kind help and you would have kindly declined. She pushed through a boundary and insisted. You didn't say, "Back off lady!" :)but you could have. It wasn't about her "minding" but about you minding.

Ms k said...

i'm with belinda.

the correct way the game is played is that the person wishing to help offers: "do you need some help?"

the one being offered help replies either "yes, thank you!" and recives the specific help they need "can you reach that down for me? thank you!" and the person gives the help asked for, then goes on their merry way.

if the answer is "no, thank you, i'm fine!" the person offering help says "ok, i was just checking!" smiles are exchanged, and again, the person goes on their merry way.

its not YOUR fault that you didnt want the help offered. you declined gracefully. its also not your fault that she got her knickers in a twist. you declined gracefully, she was the rude boor. :)

Andrea S. said...

Dear Anonymous:

I'd like to say "ditto" to what Rachel said.

Sure, there are plenty of times when people are simply offering me the same kind of assistance they would give to anyone else. When someone holds a door open for me, it usually isn't disability related--most of them don't even know that I'm deaf or that I have a couple of other disabilities that aren't immediately obvious. People with disabilities give and receive many forms of assistance that isn't any different from anyone else, and we don't think about it any more than anyone else.

Then, sometimes we do NEED assistance for disability-related reasons that goes above and beyond the kind of help that anyone else might need. When this happens, I think most of us are grateful and relieved when someone is there to offer help and most of us will accept it with grace.

But some people do go way overboard in offering help to people with disabilities in a way that they just don't do with non-disabled people. For example, on one occasion, a woman was worried that the people at the fast food counter wouldn't understand my speech clearly enough to understand my asking them for ketschup. Apparently she thought I would become upset or frustrated if this happened and thought I should be protected from this. Which is completely silly: I have plenty of experience dealing with communication-related difficulties and am accustomed to working around them. But this woman was so worried that she litterally RAN at top speed just so she could get there and ask for the ketschup before I had a chance to try for myself.

Also, some people do not take "Thanks but no thanks" with grace. In the case of the woman Dave describes here, she merely responded by looking hurt. But sometimes we encounter people who react with outright hostility and anger when we politely decline assistance. Some people have actually PHYSICALLY FORCED their assistance on others even after it was made very clear to them several times, politely and (then) with increasing firmness that it wasn't needed or wanted.

For example, I know one wheelchair riding woman who had a team of people unexpectedly grab her chair and carry her in complete disregard of her very loud complaints and protests that they stop doing this. They not only didn't bother to get her consent first, they also didn't pay adequate attention to safety: they lifted her with so little warning that she had no time to prepare herself or shift the grip she had on her chair. This meant her finger was broken and had to be splinted at the hospital. This wouldn't have happened if the people had simply *talked* to her about what kind of assistance she actually needed and listened to her suggestion.

There are also blind people who have had bystanders suddenly grab them with no warning and drag them across the street when they were, in fact, merely waiting for a friend to meet them and had had no intention of crossing the street at all.

Please understand that SOME people do SOMEtime behave very differently toward people with disabilities than they do toward others.

Please also understand that those of us with disabilities usually have very extensive experience BOTH with the ordinary kind of offer for assistance and ALSO the more patronizing kind. And we have had many years to learn to recognize the difference.

Kristin said...

I think CL's approach is spot on...and there is no reason you should be forced to accept help just to make someone else feel good. My rule of thumb is always, always ask before I help a stranger.

Noisyworld said...

She should have been taught the meaning of the word NO as a child, you were simply reinforcing this lesson in the nicest way possible!
No reason to feel bad :)

Robink said...

I think you were right to speak your mind. That is, after all, the advice you give to others who have disabilities. YOu have the right to turn down unwanted assistance.

The thing that stands out most to me is that a stranger thought it was ok to handle your food. I would have been offended by that no matter what the circumstances. Anyway, she might think differently now that she had that encounter. Sometimes you have to learn lessons the hard way. Her lesson is that not everyone wants to be helped by strangers.

Lillytigre said...

Been there and I'm so glad you bring it up dave because my mom is always telling me that if someone wants to help I should just let them. If I do not need help and someone offers I always say thanks so much for the offer but I'm good. I never ever know what to do with the people that insist anyway. Sometimes it makes me cringe and once I got seriously hurt because someone wouldn't take no for an answer. I was taking a cab home from work on an icy day. I slipped and fell the cab driver insisted he would help me up. I said no that's Okay but thanks. He continued to insist no matter how many times I said no really please don't help. But over my objections he insisted on helping picked me up an stood me on the same patch of ice and I slid again, in the second fall I fractured my ankle. It was a stress fracture yeah but I walked around on it for weeks before I got it checked. It's never been right since. Now this man was only trying to help but I know live with random ankle pain from it every day.
So I no longer feel the need to accept help I don't need so that others can feel good. I am always polite but I have learned sometimes ya just gotta not worry about other people's feelings as long as one isn't rude

Anonymous said...

Dave, you shouldn't be upset, she should have AKSKED if you wanted or needed help, and she certainly should have taken No for an answer. It's just like the lady who tried to hold open the door, but was in your way.

I hate it when people run up to do things without asking if the help was needed or wanted, usually getting in the way and slowing me down

I say "Thank you, I'm used to handling the door, it's really easier if you let me do it myself".

But I almost lost my job because someone made a face at me after I said that. Someone who was watching reported it to HR. They didn't even hear what I said, just assumed I was nasty because of the face she made.

I had someone nearly break my hand trying to open the door at work, when I already had it open, but my hand was still in the handle.

I've been knocked out of my wheelchair to the floor by well meaning "help".

I've been hit by automatic doors by people who push the door button "for me" as they go through, when I wasn't expecting it.

And the biggy, I have horrible cigarette allergies and I can't count the number of times I had to leave work after a smoker "helped" me by leaning too close.

I sometimes feel bad at turning down the help, maybe someone else could use help like that. But why don't they ask? And learn to take "No thank you" for an answer!


Anonymous said...

Personally I think if person A asks Can i help? and person B says no thanks, then that should be the end of it.
Crazy to offer assistance in a way that makes ppl feel bad.
Asking ‘let me help’ is different to asking ‘can i help’. I think generally we might use ‘let me’ with ppl we know really well, we have an intimate relationship with, so stranger saying ‘let me help’ is perhaps patronising?
But maybe that varies from place to place and doesn’t apply everywhere. But I think it does where I live.

Hannah Ensor said...

My line in this kind of situation is almost exactly the same as yours :D The trouble is if I let everyone who offered me help & looked at risk of being hurt if refused permission I would not get the practice I need to keep as independent as I can.

Perhaps I may have to add "Thank you for caring, but doing this myself is important to me" - the big grin is always employed anyway during 'assitance refusal' episodes.

Louise said...

As I read this, I remembered a situation about 15 years ago. A woman using a wheelchair had crossed the road and was having difficulty getting up the curb to the pavement (UK-English!). In the meantime a bus had pulled up really close to her and was sounding its horn.

I was outraged at the bus driver. I rushed to help the woman negotiate the curb and get out of the unpleasant situation. And - though I said 'May I help you?' I didn't wait for an answer. The woman turned on me and shouted and cursed that I had no right to touch her chair (of course I didn't).......

But I was so shocked. I really was motivated by concern (and anger at the bus driver)..... I 'only wanted to help'.

So, I guess the answer is no, you shouldn't have let her do it, but I'm glad you told her nicely, even if she didn't receive it that way. 'No thanks' would have been fine. The cursing and shouting still leave a bad taste in my mouth, 15 years later.

And much of the bad taste is about my own stupidity at not remembering to ask - AND wait for an answer - first.

Jannalou said...


We had an interesting discussion a while back about how to treat people who use wheelchairs. You might find it interesting: (it's a public post on Google+, so you should be able to read it without having a membership).

I was always under the impression that the polite thing to do is ask before doing something for someone else - especially if the other person has already begun to act on his or her own behalf.