Before you ‘help’ disabled people, check yourself

Something about the sight of visibly disabled people, especially those who use mobility devices, in public seems to trigger some sort of Pavlovian response in nondisabled people. Either they astutely ignore them to the point of walking into them, or they feel the urgent need to ‘help,’ because obviously a disabled person out in public, especially alone, is in need of helping. It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to just treat the people they see like they would treat all people, and leave it at that.

The help imperative, as it were, is super annoying, and it’s something that comes layered with problems that people very clearly don’t think about. The first is the assumption that disabled people are incapable of being independent. In fact, mobility devices like canes and wheelchairs are liberating, allowing people to move around in comfort and live active, full lives. Being out on your own isn’t a sign of a tragic, miserable, lonely life, either — how people people do you see shopping alone at the grocery store? Getting a key cut at the hardware store without an escort? You don’t think those people are inherently lonely…until they have visible disabilities.

Some people like doing things on their own. Some people have a lot of stuff to do and are running errands. Some people are popping out of the office for a minute to grab a sandwich. People do stuff on their own in public all the time and when they are grownups, it is safe to assume that they have things on lock.

Okay but sometimes people need help! You’re right, sometimes people do. If I’m at the grocery store and see someone struggling to balance heavy bags, I usually ask if they need a hand. If I see someone with a large pile of boxes at the post office, I ask if they want help carrying them out to the car. If I see someone who obviously has their hands full headed for the door, I will hold it open to them.

None of this assistance is provided on the basis of disability status. It’s provided on the basis of seeing someone who looks like they are having a little trouble balancing competing demands on their time, limbs, or ability. Sometimes that might mean helping a pregnant person pick up a bag they dropped because they’re having trouble bending comfortably. Sometimes it means holding the door of the post office open for a wheelchair user because I’m on my way out or in and I’m not going to slam it in their face, since I am not an asshole. Most of the time. Sometimes it means offering to carry a heavy box for someone in the post office who looks like they are having a tough time. These are things we should do for each other as people.

The thing about helping is that first, you should ask. I’m not going to swoop in and grab something. I’m going to say ‘oh hey, do you need help picking that up?’ or ‘I’m heading out as well, would you like me to carry that box for you so you don’t have to make two trips?’ If someone says no, I accept that as a perfectly reasonable answer. It’s not about me. It’s about whether they needed help, they didn’t, and I can move on.

There’s another thing that’s important too, and that is that I never, ever touch people without their consent, barring an emergency situation (I will grab someone who is standing in front of a speeding car if I think the reaction time between my warning shout and their getting out of the way is too long). That includes not just people themselves, but also their mobility devices and whatever they are holding. I do this because it’s common courtesy, but I also do it because you can hurt people, break things, and make a nuisance of yourself.

I have friends with Ehlers-Danlos who could potentially dislocate their shoulders if I grabbed them too hard. Some of them don’t have obvious physical signs of disability and someone might not realise that their bodies don’t take kindly to being manhandled. I assume that everyone I meet is potentially at risk of breaking bones, experiencing dislocations, or having incredibly painful skin reactions if I touch them suddenly and without consent, until proved otherwise, by them. I’m not going to randomly grab someone and earnestly get in their face about ‘helping’ when doing so could actually seriously injure them.

Similarly, I don’t touch wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and other mobility devices without explicit consent, as in ‘hello, person at the next table, your cane fell, would you like me to grab it for you?’ Especially when a mobility device is in use, you could seriously hurt someone. You could also damage it. If I suddenly grab a wheelchair and start pushing away, the person who was propelling it just fine before I could there could be hurt, in addition to irritated and humiliated. When I jam it up against the curb because I’m not paying attention, I could damage the frame. I never touch wheelchairs unless I specifically asked to reposition them or assist with something, just like I wouldn’t randomly pick a nondisabled person up and toss them across the room.

Disabled bodies are commonly treated as public property. They are not. Part of being treated like anyone else is being treated with respect and courtesy, and awareness of autonomy. It’s not that disabled people don’t want help and should be ignored at all times. It’s that they, like the rest of society, may sometimes appreciate help when it is offered, and may at other times be cool and not in need of assistance even if an onlooker thinks otherwise. And help, for people who have been disempowered, disenfranchised, and abused by society both historically and now, is a loaded proposition — how would you feel if you were pursued by a flock of people trying to ‘help’ just because you happen to be nondisabled and out in public alone, which is an awfully brave thing to do, really, and are you sure I can’t just take that for you, oh no, I know you probably have it but I’m right here and it’s no trouble, really, here, just let me—no—I’ve got it—oh, I’m sorry, did I break your eggs?

Image: Help!, Dorli Photography, Flickr