Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Got It Wrong on Friday

I was asked a question in a seminar that I was giving, "The Ethics of Touch," that took me aback, not because it was inappropriate but because I'd never been asked it before, and I gave the wrong answer. That has bothered me ever since I realized it was wrong, which was about 40 minutes after I could actually do anything about it. We were driving away. It was Friday and we were heading home.


That means, I thought, I've got to just live with the fact that I messed up. I gave a personal opinion in place of a fact. That's a temptation that I find hard, sometimes, to avoid. So, I know some of the folks who were at the seminar are blog readers, I'm hoping they'll get the right answer to the person who asked the question.

Here was the question:

"I've been taught that when I'm talking to someone in a wheelchair I should crouch down so that we are looking eye to eye. That way I'm not towering over someone when we're talking. Is that right?"

Now, I have to admit, as I have, that I was taken aback, but I also have to admit that I have personally strong feelings about this. This led me to answer, as a person with an opinion, yet present it as a fact.

Here's the thing. I don't like it. I really don't like it when people crouch down or kneel down to talk to me. I'm not a queen with the power to bestow knighthood, so stand the hell up. I feel that when someone crouches down that:

1) they are doing me a big ass ol' favour.
2) that I'm to be grateful for the favour
3) the crouch  or the kneeling centres me out even more
4) it's patronizing
5) it makes it look like talking with me, a disabled person, is a whole lot of work

The first time someone knelt down to talk to me. Eye to eye, I was startled. I suggested he stand up but he insisted. We talked for about five minutes, and you can't make this stuff up, when he went to stand his knees locked and he couldn't get up. I had to turn my wheelchair so it was sideways in front of him and give him my arm, and the armrest of my chair, for him to get back up. I found it hard not to laugh, I didn't because he was really trying.

And that's what bothers me - I don't want people to be constantly trying, putting effort into what should be effortless.

So when you talk with me. Stand the hell up!


Here's the thing.

That's ME.

That's decidedly not everyone.

I should have said that I don't like it, but that the best thing to do is ask the person what would make them the most comfortable. After all I'm tall and I'm in a tall chair.

Why that simple answer didn't flow from my mouth, I don't know.

But if you are reading this, dear question asker ... it was a great question to which I gave the wrong answer.

Here's the right answer: Ask the person you are talking with what they would prefer.


How hard was that?

Too hard for me anyways.


Tamara said...

Ask. Who would've thought it was that simple. It feels like I'm being patronizing when i put myself at eye level with someone using a chair. I think it's because that's what I would do when I wanted to make sure my children were listening to me when they were young.

Andrea S. said...

For me, as a deaf person, sometimes I may NEED to crouch or otherwise be at the level of the wheelchair rider in order to lipread them properly. It's hard to really lipread well when the speaker and the lipreader are at significantly different heights. And leaning definitely does not help, it makes it worse, I have to either sit or crouch or possibly kneel, especially if there is no sign language interpreter available and I'm really all on my own.

In my case, because this is something I need to do for me and isn't just for the other person, I don't ask their preference, but I do explain why I'm doing it and might say, "I hope that's alright with you" so they don't get the wrong idea especially if they're someone who normally wouldn't like for a person to crouch/kneel/etc. I'm not sure what I will do, though, when crouching or when getting down and getting up becomes too much harder than it is now as I grow older. Fortunately, most of the time I have been in an environment where chairs are available which helps a lot.

Jenni said...

Don't beat yourself up about it. It's not just you. Here's an add from the UK (where I am) about just this issue.


Personally I think - stand up if its a quick chat. If you're going to be talking for ages, get a chair.

PS: these ads are fronted by Alex Brooker, who is a disabled comedian. Check out his work, especially 'the Last Leg' from (UK) Channel 4; hilarious!

Rachel in Idaho said...

I rather strongly dislike when people kneel, unless it's super loud and there are no chairs around or any other way for me to be able to hear them - but even approaching middle age as I am, when people kneel to talk to me, I feel like a little kid (given that I'm just over four feet tall, about 1.3 meters). And it's NOT a nice feeling, either, no matter if your intentions are excellent. Bending over to talk to me is marginally better, but only if it's something really quick.

It saves both my neck and your knees (and my right knee, these days) if we both find somewhere to sit should we need to talk for longer than a few sentences.

I don't quite understand how there are "rules" about how to interact with other humans, disabled or otherwise. It seems especially with us...unusual...people that finding out what we specifically prefer would be far more useful than some silly universal "rule."

clairesmum said...

I generally try to be at face level when I am having any interaction more than a very quick exchange with anyone...adult or child. for me it seems respectful not to tower over anyone, my back gets cranky quickly if i bend over too long, and being face to face usually facilitates the nonverbal communication that can be easily missed. also, my work is primarily with elders, and the rate of visual/hearing/processing difficulties is pretty high...also the slower or softer speech...i do try not to be 'too close' into the area of personal space, as best as I can manage...i'll keep noticing, tho...

Purpletta said...

Hi Dave - I totally empathize with the difficulty in mixing opinion with facts when training groups about subjective real-life scenarios.

HOWEVER one thing you are consistently clear about in ALL of your communications is the Fundamental human right to respect, the right of all of us to be seen and treated and treat one another with equal amounts of humanity, the core belief that respect of one another involves communication on each person's own terms with each person being in the driver's seat with regard to how others interact with or support. him or her. In other words you may not have included that specifically in response to that particular question, but I am certain that if a person attended your training (or used your training materials or read your blog) then s/he absolutely heard that message loudly and clearly.

Anonymous said...

In my dental assisting training we were always taught to address the person in the chair face to face, both sitting before and after treatment. When you are at an equal level is says that one person is not more important than the other. Once a patient is laying down, you are lording over them, in a perceived position of power and authority. My instinct is not to "talk down" to anyone. Like clairesmum indicated, passing pleasantries I wouldn't make a show of it, but a conversation, to me, warrants the effort of a face to face conversation. Think of it the opposite way. When we are introduced to someone, and we are sitting, do we not stand to address them? (If possible of course.) I feel respect goes both ways.

Rickismom said...

hey, Dave, we all make mistakes. Just do what you did-try the best you can do to correct it!

ecodrew said...

Can I ask a somewhat related wheelchair etiquette question? Is it OK to compliment someone's wheelchair (child or adult)? Some wheelchair users really deck out their chairs with colors and other cool decorations, and I genuinely like to compliment them just like I would a nice pair of shoes, shirt, hat, etc. And, now that my son has an awesome bright green chair, I notice the colors/accessories on others' more. Thanks!

Dave Hingsburger said...

ecodrew, as I said in the post, everyone is different and I speak, really, only for me. However, I have often commented and complimented someone on their wheelchair. Others who use mobility devices have also commented on mine. I am less often complimented by non disabled people but, when I am, I'm totally good with it.