Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010: Do You Need Assistance?

It’s Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010, and I would highly recommend checking in at Diary of a Goldfish to see other posts on the theme!

A question that I get from a lot of nondisabled folks as they are starting to explore ableism and interacting with people with disabilities is ‘I really can’t stand it when someone appears to be in need of help, and I want to offer assistance, but I don’t know how. Can you tell me how to politely ask someone if help is needed or wanted?’ The desire to offer assistance is a natural one, but it often expresses in really offensive and sometimes dangerous ways (‘here, let me push your chair for you!’) so this is a question I don’t mind answering!

And I’m going to start my answer with an anecdote from my own life which I think illustrates a reasonably good example of how such interactions can go:

I was in line at the grocery store, and I noticed a wheelchair user behind me with a basket. I quickly observed that his chair was low and the conveyer belt was high, and it might be difficult for him to get his groceries up onto the belt, so I said:

‘Would you like assistance with that?’

And he said:

‘No, thanks, I kind of just shove the basket up there and let the checker deal with it.’

And I said:

‘Ok, cool.’

And then we had a conversation about fruit.

Note that this interaction had several characteristics. I observed something which I thought might be an issue and offered assistance. I did not yank this gentleman’s basket out of his hands. I didn’t shout at him or talk very slowly as though I was afraid he wouldn’t understand me. I looked at his face, not his chair, while we were talking.

And when he said ‘no, thanks,’ I didn’t force the issue. I gracefully acknowledged his equally graceful decline of my offer, and we went on with our days. In other words, we had an interaction where we both treated each other like human beings, equally deserving of courtesy, respect, and autonomy.

When you want to offer assistance to someone, offer politely, and don’t swoop in as though you are assuming that your offer has already been accepted. Never touch a person’s body, service animal, or assistive device without permission. If that person says ‘no, thank you,’ say ‘ok.’ If that person says ‘yes, please,’ pay attention when that person explains how you can be of the most help.

Over at Jesse the K’s place, a great conversation took place recently in which we talked about the language people use when offering assistance, and what a difference it makes:

When someone says “Can I help you with that?” my negative response can be interpreted as “you’re not capable of helping me” (which many folks would perceive as rude). To me, that question is more about the asker’s need to help than my requirements for assistance. When someone says “would you like a hand with that?” saying “no” focuses on me, not the asker. (Jesse the K)

When framing offers of assistance, it is tremendously beneficial to phrase them in a way which centers the person who appears to need help, rather than the person offering it. Saying ‘Do you need assistance?’ or ‘Do you need a hand with that?’ sounds very different from ‘Can I help you?’ In addition to watching your literal language, it helps to watch your body language and tone; are you using a sing songy voice? Are you talking any differently from the way you would talk to anyone else? Are you staring at a physical impairment or assistive device while you talk?

The brief version of the answer to the question of ‘how can I offer help without being intrusive or offensive?’ is:

  1. Address the person, not the impairment, using language which centers that person.
  2. If the answer is ‘yes, please,’ pay attention so that you know how to help.
  3. If the answer is ‘no, thank you,’ say ‘ok,’ or something along those lines.

In respect for the spirit of Blogging Against Disablism Day, particularly the language amnesty, this is designated as a 101 thread. This means that you should feel comfortable asking questions and that no one will give you a hard time about the language you choose to use (as always, I do not police language used for self-identification).

(Crossposted at FWD/Forward.)

2 Replies to “Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010: Do You Need Assistance?”

  1. Excellent, useful post. Reading it, I realized that I’m much more likely to ask “Would you like a hand with that?” rather than “Do you need…?” And now I’m cogitating why, and that’s useful, too. Thanks.

  2. This is something I address with my students ALL THE TIME. Many times a bewildered student will come up to me and say “X just yelled at me, and I was only trying to help!” My immediate question is always “Did you ask if they wanted help?” They can repeat the second half of the line with me: “If you are helping someone, and they don’t want help, it’s not helping, it’s bothering.”

    Thanks for an excellent explanation of why phrasing matters, and a reminder that helping is supposed to be about the recipient, not the giver, of the help.

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