Friday, October 28, 2011

When I'm There, But Not Needed

All I did was ask Joe if the store had a wheelchair aisle. A woman, nearby, overheard my question and took off like a shot, bobbing and weaving with her cart, through the crowd ahead of us. A few seconds later she was back, and panting, and told me the wheelchair aisles were up head of us past about five check out points. OK. Thanks. I guess.

My question was not of her, I wasn't even speaking to her, I was speaking to Joe. Joe is standing, I am seated, he can see farther and in fact, while she was off on the scooting party, he had turned and said, 'Yes, I can see them up ahead.'

This little, small, incident, has stayed with me.

Bothering me.

She had rushed to help.

That's a good thing, right?

I felt her help intrusive.

That's a bad thing, right?

She took a lot of effort to be kind to a stranger.

That's a good thing, right?

I didn't like being made to feel a bother to someone.

That's a bad thing, right?

She smiled, widely, at my thank you.

That's a good thing, right?

I felt like I existed to make her feel good.

That's a bad thing, right?

Sometimes I don't know how to understand my own existence. I think that's because I am always caught in some kind of social mix. And often, in that mix, I, me, Dave, am totally irrelevant to what's going on. My wheelchair has relevance, my disability has prominence, but I, me, Dave, am not what's vital to the interaction. Then, in those interactions, I feel quite lost. Like I wonder if I have any right to feel anything at all, except alone, when what's going on doesn't really require me at all. Oh, there needs to be a warm body in the chair, but it doesn't need to be mine, I'm just there to allow for the illusion that it's about me. Not about stereotype, or pity, or some other complex emotion triggered by a wheelchair or a disability.

But I said 'Thanks.'

Because that's what you say, right?

Then why does it feel, wrong?


Laurene said...

I think it feels wrong because of exactly what you said, the woman didn't stop to consider you as a person, specifically a person with relationships, one of whom is right there with you. She intruded on your relationship and discounted it. Would you have felt differently if you had asked a question that Joe did not have the answer to?

wheeliecrone said...

I have had people absolutely insist on helping me when I did not help, did not want help, did not ask for help.And I feel used at times like that. Like it wasn't about me. Like it wasn't about my wheelchair, even. It was all about them."Look at me, the Great Helper!"

Now, before everyone rises up in mighty anger, let me differentiate: I am not talking about a situation where I ask for help, someone helps me. I say, Thank you." The other person says, "You're welcome." Or, this being Australia, "No worries." or "My pleasure." We both smile pleasantly. Both of us have a brighter day. No, I am not talking about that. That is a friendly, helpful interaction.

I am also not talking about a situation where someone notices that I am struggling and assists me. For instance, I am reaching hopelessly for a can of tomatoes that is totally out of my reach, someone says, Would you like one of those?" I say, "Yes, please." They reach down a can of tomatoes for me. I say, "Thank you." They say, "No worries." Smiles. Brighter day.

No. I am talking about a situation where I am choosing fresh oranges and someone comes along a rips the bag out of my hand and starts putting oranges in it, and then hands me the full bag. Or someone who wants to help me go somewhere that I wasn't planning on going to - somewhere I don't want to go. That, to me. is not helping.
Like the woman you wrote about, Dave, somehow it is as if they are trying to make my disability about them. And I just do not understand what thought processes go into that. And I find it quite annoying.
I usually do what you did, Dave. I watch with bemusement and thank them when they have played out their drama, but I do not understand what is going on. Some sort of displacement activity because of discomfort at seeing me in my wheelchair? I don't know. It's a mystery.

Nan said...

Norm Kunc has a great article on this that I used to share with my daughter's elementary school teachers, called Hell Bent on Helping: Benevolence, Friendship, and the Politics of Help. It can be found at I suggest anyone who works with children read this! Because that's where it all begins and we sometimes, inadvertently, teach our own wacky sense of being open and inclusive . . .

Anonymous said...

Insisting on helping without offering is generally treating the other person as if he or she were a child.

I always tell my children "Offer your help & then WAIT for the answer." My daughter with Down Syndrome will let people wait on her hand & foot (if allowed). She will also jump up to help someone else, especially her brother, even though he's capable of doing it himself & she's supposed to be focusing on something else!

Debbie (NJ)

Dave Hingsburger said...

Laurene, It wouldn't have made a difference if Joe had or hadn't known the answer. Both of us, Joe and I, were so startled by her taking off pell mell through the store and back that it was disconcerting. So, no, it wouldn't have made a difference. It would have still been over the top and intrusive ... to me at least. Thanks for your comment and question.

Feminist Voice with Disabilities said...

I have a different type of disability; it's a psychiatric kind and I'm not in a wheelchair so I won't pretend like I know what it's like to be you, of course. But I do understand that feeling like someone is being condescending without really meaning to, because of course they are trying to be NICE, and if someone is being NICE, then we are supposed to appreciate their NICENESS even if it means they are treating us like we are a child. Just because someone is being "nice" doesn't mean it's not insulting or demeaning.

CL said...

I don't know the answer, but this is one of those really difficult things that never goes away.

What are we supposed to do when someone thinks they're being a nice, good person but they're actually "helping" in a way that is patronizing and even insulting? Not responding positively will offend and hurt a person who meant well... responding positively forces us to participate in our own subtle oppression. Sometimes it just seems impossible.

I think the only actual solution is educating the public about how to interact with people with disabilities. We grow up learning ableism to the point where it's ingrained, and I think most people don't start correcting their ableist impulses until they've read something that forces them to rethink what they have taken for granted. Just like schools have programs to teach children to not be racist and sexist, I think it would benefit everyone if children were exposed to lessons about disability early in life.

As for what you do in the moment -- that's much harder. So much daily oppression comes in this form, when people force you to either acquiesce to what they want from you or hit them over the head with "leave me alone damn it!" Sometimes men are like that to women... being "nice" and giving you "compliments" and trying to do things for you even when you keep politely declining. Then when you finally do snap at them, you're the bitch when they were "just being nice."

It's unfortunate that so many people are misguided in how to be a nice, helpful person... and it's really unfortunate that there is no great way to deal with it. It's no-win.

CapriUni said...

One of my online friends wrote her own post on this very question, last month. And her conclusion was so well written, I thought I'd share:

On Understanding

Anonymous said...

Romans 12:9-13
Don't just pretend to love others, Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on prayng. When God's people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

I guess I offered the above scripture as an explanation of why I "help". I don't know that I have ever insisted upon helping someone, but I also am not sure that I haven't. But because of posts like this, I have become more aware of my own behavior and to make sure that I am respectful in my actions. Regardless, my offer to help someone isn't about making me feel better about myself. I help others because I believe that is what God would choose for me to do.

Lauren said...

I am not saying this because of this one post, but as a sum of many posts you have written about social interactions.

A friend told me about an interesting study about social preconceptions. If an American sees someone walking and trip, we usually assume that the person is clumsy and tripped over their own feet. If a Japanese person sees this, he assumes there was a crack in the sidewalk that caused the person to trip. Either of the two possibilities could be true, but we choose to judge people based on our social constructs. My point being, your assumptions of other people's intentions have more to do with your preconceptions of how the world views you. I think this is why you are conflicted. You know many people in the world to be nice, but you also know of such cruelty. Just try to remember that in the are still going off of your own assumptions, and they can be wrong just as much as they can be right.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Lauren, while I understand, in part, what you are saying, I wonder if this might be a new way of 'blaming the victim'. So people who have been subject to racism, or sexism, or homophobia can have their experiences discounted because their world view distorts the reality they experience, therefore their reports of their reality are not trustworthy. It's comforting for a man to say that women 'see sexism' everywhere rather than to admit that there is sexism everywhere. The 'isms' exist only in the minds of those who anticipate them and make assumptions about the behaviour of wholely innocent others. I can't buy it. I do think that I need to be careful in how I see the world, for the reasons that you cite, but still - in the story told, I described, as accurately as possible what she did and as accurately as possible what I felt about it. Then I tried to figure out what came from where. It's all I can do. But whatever is said, whatever is done, discrimination in all its forms, regarding disability do exist in the real world, not just in my mind. I'm glad you wrote your comment, I like to be challenged to think. I hope my disagreement, after much thought, with your point in no way discourages you from continuing the conversation (if you wish) or in commenting in the future.

Anonymous said...

It felt mixed because it was mixed. It was intrusive. She was not the person of whom you asked the question. Joe was the person you were talking to. Of the two of you, it feels to me that she was most disrespectful of Joe. Honestly, though, her intrusion failed to respect both of you.

She meant it as a kindness obviously - and your response to her was kind. But... it WAS intrusive. I would have had mixed feelings too.

CL said...

Lauren, I would also say, respectfully, that I don't think Dave was assuming bad intentions -- the opposite, really. I read the post like he assumed that she thought she was doing a good thing. Her intentions aren't the problem.

What she actually did is the problem. She was so caught up in wanting to "help" someone in a wheelchair that she didn't consider Dave as a person who might not need or want her help.

Nobody is saying she did this because she is cruel. I'm sure she's a kind, good person who has nothing but good intentions. But what she did was still patronizing and intrusive. Actions can be well-intentioned but ultimately harmful, and pointing that out isn't the same as assuming bad intentions.

Displaced said...

Great blog - as the depth and complexity of the comments indicates.

I have been on both sides of this issue, a helpful person trying to be helpful and not always 100% aware of my language and my intrusion and a somewhat disabled person who others are trying to help. It's a conflicted situation. It occurred to me that the woman might have thought the question was directed to her, perhaps she, in a dumb fog of being overcome by the sight of someone in a chair, failed to notice that Joe was actually with you. That would really change the dynamic of the entire event. Is that a possibility?

Everyone needs help sometimes, able-bodied people need help too. A particularly benign example is when I've paused beside someone trying to get out of a tight parking spot and given them signs of how close they were to the other cars there is no judgment in that, no suggestion that they could not accomplish it alone, it is simply an act of trying to make something easier for someone else and it is taken as such. It is in fact a random act of kindness.

I have read many of your posts, Dave, and I don't think you have any particularly twisted chip on your shoulder, there is no question that people can be obnoxious in their attempts to help. It is, however, always beneficial to remember that everyone's point of view is unique and that we do all look at things through the lens of our own experiences.

Rachel said...

The thing is, displaced -- and Dave has written about this issue before -- is that there can be large differences in tone between a random person helping another and a random person helping another who has a disability. There can be a certain assumption that the person needs help and should be grateful for it no matter if they really needed it or not, because the "helper" is being a Good Person by offering assistance.

It can be really difficult because people really do mean well. I have no problem asking for a hand if I need it, but generally if I'm not asking, I'm not needing. So if you ask I'll politely decline. I deeply dislike the assumption that I automatically need help.

I think what leads to beating heads into walls is that the solution to this one is so simple: ask if somebody needs help, don't assume they must, and let them tell you exactly what they need you to do if they accept the offer. They'll know much better than you what they actually need because they know their own capabilities far better than a stranger possibly could.

Good intentions are great but they don't make up for intrusive, unwanted, sometimes counterproductive "help."

Ellen said...

A loved one of mine would have done something like this. He would have done it for anyone, not just someone in a wheelchair. I believe he did it when he felt very badly about himself. When his wife left him and he lost his job I think he tried to feel better by helping others, sometimes when they didn't need help. I accepted favors at times out of love because I didn't want to say no.

I can absolutely see why the woman really annoyed you and it was very intrusive and it's something you deal with regularly. But I know in the case of my loved one, he was hurting inside even though it wasn't apparent.

Anonymous said...

I think I've shared this story at this blog at least once, for some other earlier post (though I don't remember when). But there was one occasion when I was a teenager when I was with a bunch of other teens at a fast food restaurant. I had received my order and walked away with it when I realized I had forgotten to ask for extra ketchup, so I mentioned this to one of the adults supervising our group so she would understand why I was turning around to go back to the counter. Not this adult, but a different adult who happened to overhear my explanation suddenly zoomed off at top speed toward the counter and ordered the ketchup for me before I could reach the counter. I was very very taken aback by this and a bit offended. It seemed that the reason why she had been so terriby anxious to order the ketchup on my behalf is because she was worried that the people behind the counter might not understand my request, and then I might be frustrated. And she had wanted to "protect" me from that frustration. BUT. I had ordered the entire meal on my own without any assistance and without any problems! So why would ordering extra ketchup be any more difficult? AND, as a person deaf from birth, I have had a life time of experience dealing with the occasional communication challenges that do arise from this. Even as a teenager, I was already very experienced in using a range of solutions to communication difficulties--much more so than most hearing people who never have to think about such things! And I was also accusomted to hearing people occasionally having difficulty understanding me--I was not so fragile that I would wilt just because my first attempt at communicating with someone might not work right away! So it was insulting to me that this woman who knew NOTHING about me simply decided WITHOUT EVEN CONSULTING ME that it was her job to "protect" me from things I needed no protection from and was able to handle quite well on my own!

Not exactly the same as what you experienced, but similar in some ways in that both cases involved a woman so anxious to help that she had to literally RUN in order to block me, or Joe, from doing it first!

Andrea S.
(More comments forthcoming below)

Anonymous said...

To non-disabled people reading these comments:

Like others here who have disabilities, I have NO problem with someone helping me when I actually ASK for help. I'm HAPPY to have help in that situation. Or if someone bothers to ASK ME FIRST, and if I then say, "Yes, please, it would help if you could do X" and then they do X (instead of forcing me to accept Y because they're so sure that Y is surely better even after I've explained why it isn't!!). Then, yes, I'm HAPPY to have help in that case too. I'm happy to have help WHEN I NEED HELP and have clearly stated to others that I do need help. And I'm happy in the EXACT SAME WAY that any one else is happy to have help, disabled or not!! Giving and receiving help is normal for EVERYone, and us disabled folk are involved in plenty of perfectly positive, pleasant interactions involving both giving and receiving help every single day, just like everyone else!

What I *do* have a problem with is when someone jumps in to force assistance upon me without even finding out if I actually need it or want it in the first place.

When in doubt -- DON'T BE AFRAID TO OFFER HELP to a disabled person. A sincere offer, given on the same basis that you might offer help to anyone else, is almost always going to be treated with gratitude even if the other person might then politely say "no thanks." (Or maybe they'll say "yes, please," or whatever).

The key is to OFFER instead of forcing! Don't grab their body or their possessions or invade their personal space (except in a situation of dire and immediate danger, such as if someone is about to be hit by a falling piano) until you know it's okay and your offer of assistance is accepted. Isn't that pretty much the same rules of etiquette you would follow with anyone else?

The reason why some disabled people sometimes complain about "excessive helpfulness" isn't because we want help on a different basis from anyone else. WE DON'T!! We don't actually react to ORDINARY helpfulness any differently from anyone else!! The reason we sometimes complain is because a few/some non-disabled people try to force "help" on us in ways that most of them don't do to non-disabled people. And they sometimes force this help in really obnoxious, insulting, and intrusive ways. Sometimes literally to the point of causing bodily injury! Just as long as you don't become one of them, (always ASK, never force!) you'll be just fine, really! Thanks for reading/considering!

Andrea S.

Lauren said...

Actually, your response encourages me to speak up because I know I was heard! Thank you. I absolutely agree that discrimination is real and hurtful and needs to be discussed openly. I was only trying to shed light on why you felt conflicted.

Anonymous said...

As the song says: some kind of help is the kind of help that helping's all about, and some kind of help is the kind of help that we can all do without.

Nobody likes unnecessary, sudden, unwanted help for brownie points. Nobody. And since disabled people are subjected to it so much more often, it probably becomes even more of a sore spot.

I think the problem is this simple idea of "help is good". Even in kindergarten, that isn't true- ever help a little kid with their project or attempt, only to have them wail, in tears, "but I wanted to do it myself!"? This is not a childish emotion. It's a basic emotion.