Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Dark Heart of Kindness

Image description: A fat person in a wheelchair with a big red bag of perpetual gratitude on the lap.
When I exit the building, in my manual chair and on my own, I need to do it by myself without any kind of assistance. If people want to help they do one of two things: they hold open one of the two doors, or they attempt to hold both doors open which then places their body directly in my way. To get through I simply roll up to the doors, place the tip of each foot rest against one of each of the doors and then I give a shove. The shove is strong enough to swing the doors out and then I give another push and I'm out. I then grab the doors and use them to push myself away from the building. It's hard to explain and it sound complicated and, I'll admit, it took me a while to learn. But now that I know how to do it, it's quite easy.

So, help that isn't help.

I've discussed this before but before you decide 'same song different day' I want to talk about something other than the battles we, as disabled people, do with unhelpful helping others. I want to talk about an assumption behind the help. I had a discussion with someone about this, a non-disabled person, and she said something interesting. She said, "At least they are acting out of kindness and that matters."

I thought about that for a while and wondered if I'm, when I'm angry about fighting off helpful 'kindness' so I can actually do what I need to do, being small hearted. I wondered why the actions bothered me so much. I've talked before about the bag full of gratitude that people with disabilities have to haul around with them, like a crippled Claus, to dole out to those desperate for affirmation of personal goodness. But, that's not it. I don't think that's what bothers me.

Finally I began to question the assumption all together. Is it really kindness? Does the act spring from the  pools of humanity that swirl around our perceptions of others? I have noticed that those same people who rush to help me, don't rush to help others who need it. The woman carrying whacks of groceries - she's on her own. The fellow delivering a huge pizza - he gets the door on his own. These same people who rush to help me, don't rush to help them. Now this isn't a scientific study and I'm sure that there are times when everyone helps everyone else, and perhaps my disability trumps other people's needs and changes the game, but whatever, it's what I see. 

I wondered then if the act of kindness isn't kindness. Is it an act of pity? I'm not sure but it certainly is an act of assumption. That assumption is 'that poor fellow in the wheelchair can't manage his life without the kind interference of random strangers.' That would be followed by, 'I wouldn't want that life.' Now, and I hate to say this, sometimes I do need the interference of random strangers. But I think everyone does at one time or another. But, mostly, I don't. And when I do, I ask.

My competence, which would be acknowledged in letting me get on with what I'm doing unmolested, would require a rewiring of the perception of disability and life with disability. Who wants to do that? Who wants to challenge a strongly held belief that life with disability is lived in constant submission to the 'kindness' of others.

After thinking all this, I decided to try something out. Here's how that worked. I was leaving the building in my manual chair and just as I was to push through a young fellow, a student, rushed over to open one door. I thanked him and asked him if he could do me a favour. He nodded, confused thinking he was already doing me a favour. I said, could you let go of the door and just watch me come through the door. Now you all know how I hate being watched doing stuff. But in this case, I invited it. He stood there, watched me get through the door, and get through easily.

In my heart I thought this might challenge his stereotype as to the perpetual neediness of people with disabilities.

Did it work?

Well, you be the judge.

He said, "I've never been so inspired."



Frank_V said...

Some days, we can't win, or even make a point, without having to make yet another point. Thanks for trying to educate people Dave, and I'm sorry that person did not learn that we can handle our own lives, and that opening a door does not need to be inspirational.

Unknown said...

I remember the first time I was called an 'inspiration' for getting in and out of a car by myself, something I was perfectly capable of doing, and how I was described as 'fiercely independant' for refusing the offers of unneeded help to do it. It baffled me that first time, confused me the second time and made me want to be violent the hundreth time. Its a pervasive mindset as is the belief that we should be both grateful for unsolicited offers/assaults of help AND be understanding of and polite to the people doing it because they 'mean well'. At the age of 43 and 6years into being a wheelchair user my feelings on the matter now are f**k that s**t.

We dont exist to make other people feel good at our expense, or to shore up their privileged but fragile egos, and until able bodied people are fine with us forcing our help on them,calling them inspirational for doing mundane things and reducing them to one dimensional stereotypes with no individuality, personhood or rights, I'm going to keep on being 'ungrateful' and 'impolite' when thats done to me. Maybe making it unpleasant for them to behave that way will have more social effect than allowing them to have warm fuzzys when we're hurt and seething at their attitudes and behaviours

Unknown said...

Dave, I hear you, I really do. I have to admit that I am one of those people. The non-disabled who would innately feel I needed to get the door. The only difference is that I would get the door for the lady with groceries and the pizza guy too. It was how I was raised, I don't even think about it. I will try and be more cognizant of who I help and who I don't and pay special attention to how it is received. Breaking myself of the pattern might be far more challenging.

CapriUni said...

To Jennifer --

It may be more challenging, but it might also be more rewarding, too (I hope so).

And thank you for opening the door for the woman with the groceries, and the guy with the pizza -- and I bet the people who ordered the pizza thank you, too.

Sheila K said...

I was also raised to be conscientious and helpful. I consider it my duty to reach things shorter folks are trying to get from high places. I attempt to entertain unhappy babies on airplanes, in line ups or the like. It is good for everyone if it works, the baby, the parent, the employees and of course, me. I have learned to ask first and always respect the answer given. I guess I'd rather risk annoying you by asking than be the person who ignores a situation like you had at the clinic the other day, when It might've made the place as accessible as it should've been all along.

I often need help and typically appreciate offers of assistance, but not always. When I REALLY need help the most I seem least able to accept it. Then, later, I am grateful some noticed and cared. I guess there is no correct way to be a good community minded human that will work for everyone. We all learn and teach as we go.

Unknown said...

Love the thinking this provokes.. not inspired though.. :)

Kristine said...

Lol! That probably shouldn't have made me burst into laughter at the end.. but it did. In that head shaking, burying face in my hands, kind of way. :) Some days we take a step forward, a step backward, and end up a step sideways. Do we count that as a win? I don't even know. :)

Rachel said...

Sheila K, I think it really comes down to the situation, and the attitude of the potential helper. (Your attitude sounds fine to me, btw.) The oddest part of people asking if I need help - given an everyday situation say in a grocery store where something I want is over my head (that does happen when one is just over 4 feet tall) is that 99% of the time if people ask if I need help I'm usually comparing prices, or considering whether to buy something that I can reach, and no I don't. If I *do* need help reaching something, there's nobody there and I have to find somebody, staff or other shopper, to assist. That being said, I have no problem with an offer of help as long as the "Nope, I'm fine, thanks" is respected, which it virtually always has been for me. And I've never had anybody refuse when I ask. A local store recently remodeled and a coworker of mine who is rather short herself was complaining about how high the shelves were now. "Welcome to my world," was my response. :)

Dave, I'd love to see your door technique in action. I have issues with doors, though different than yours, and I suspect yours are far more creative than mine as I'm not a chair user. I bet the people that designed the doors never thought of a guy like you coming along, let alone figuring out a way to handle them independently. Please join me in whatever insulting gesture you'd like to use at said people. :)

SammE said...

Is it right, Dave, to ask if a person wants help? I have asked a person using a wheelchair if help was needed to reach something in the grocery store shelf (I saw her seeming to struggle to reach). The person was happy to accept my help and I was happy to help. And then we had a conversation about the product. Another time I asked a man who was using a wheelchair if he wanted help with a door. He cheerfully said he didn't, and I happily left him to it. I did not feel rejected by his response, but would have felt terrible if he had needed help and I hadn't offered. It's hard to know what is best! :)

Andrea Shettle, MSW said...

SammE, although I can't answer for Dave since I'm not Dave, speaking as a person with disabilities (though, different disabilities from his), it's always fine to ask. The key is to actually listen to the answer! And it seems plain that you do, so I think the way you've been handling it is fine. Usually when disabled people are complaining about people helping too much or whatever, it's because someone may have refused to listen when they said "no thanks" or may have literally, physically forced their conception of "help" onto them (for example, pushing a wheelchair while the person riding it keeps asking them to stop).

ecodrew said...

Thanks for your post, and thanks to the wise comments above mine. I was thinking similar thoughts - I often offer to hold the door for people (regardless of age, gender, or ability). But, if they say "thanks I've got it" I say something like "OK, cool" and move on. Just last week I offered to help a delivery guy pushing a dolly loaded with many heavy boxes. He said no thanks I've got it, and I realized he (like you, Dave) had getting his dolly through the door down to such a science that I only got in his way/slowed him down.

So, I hope I'm understanding correctly that it's OK to offer help, as long as we listen to the response - especially if the wheelchair user declines our offer?

If only common sense and common decency were more common. *sigh*