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. People with all levels of experience with disability activism and the disability community are encouraged to comment and exchange questions and ideas.

(Crossposted at this ain’t livin’.)

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

22 thoughts on “Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010: Do You Need Assistance?

  1. On Wednesday, I ran into a classmate and we took the elevator up to class only to discover class was in the art museum on campus. She didn’t know where it was, but I did.

    As we left the building, we went down a small flight of stairs.

    Later on, we had to go down more stairs, a bit steeper, and thinking about my own unsteadiness, I asked if she was okay with stairs.

    “Yeah, no problem.”
    And then I continued nattering on about campus and how much this class sucks.

  2. s. e., I really love the stuff you write. I found this post very helpful. I have catalogued your instructions for future reference. But I did find a bit of it, a very small part of it really, bothersome. And I know that you had no intention of bothering, excluding or causing offense. I don’t say this to be oppositional in any way. I hope I am not rude as I explain this.

    You instruct would-be-assistance-offerers to do some things that I, and some other people with similar disabilities, can’t do. I mean instructing people to “watch your body language and tone,” and saying that, in the example you gave from your life, you did a good thing by looking at the man’s face.

    I know that by saying it was good that you looked at his face, you mean (as you go on to clarify) that it was good that you did this instead of staring at him in a dehumanizing way. And by saying that people should watch their body language and tone, I know you mean (as you go on to clarify) that they shouldn’t treat disabled people differently than they treat non-disabled people.

    It just bothers me to see eye gaze, body language, and tone held up as indicators of respect, especially in conversations around disability. I don’t make eye contact and often I don’t look at people at all when I speak to them. My body language and tone don’t always fall within the socially-acceptable limits for the situation I’m in. I know a lot of other people have similar experiences.

    Sometimes people think that all of this means that I don’t like them, and that saddens me, just as it would sadden me if I offered someone assistance and they interpreted my non-standard gaze/tone/body language as condescending. The thing is, though, this is not my faut. It’s not my responsibility to change my communication so that I don’t make people uncomfortable. It’s the responsibility of society in general to make communication more accessible, and to be more accepting of people with different communication styles. I think that if people stopped equating eye gaze, body language, and tone with respect, it would be a good step in that direction.

    Again, I don’t think you are a bad person, and I did really like this post overall. I’m sure if we met in person you wouldn’t judge me for the way that I appear and behave, and I’m sure you’ll handle this really well. I hope I did this right. I wouldn’t want to make you sad by pointing this out.

  3. that’s a good point about framing offers of help in a way that centers the person in appearance of needing help. i’ve been thaught that “can i help you?” would be the more polite form, it hadn’t occured to me that there’s issues with that. but what you wrote makes a lot of sense. thanks for this post!

  4. Excellent point, zheyna, and thank you for bringing this up! This post was more focused on nondisabled people and how they can communicate offers of assistance, although of course people with disabilities also can and do help each other out.

    I certainly do not think that people with disabilities need to adjust their communication styles to suit others and would not advocate such. And, of course, something I didn’t bring up in this post is that there is (obviously) no universal communication style for communicating with people with disabilities; I, for example, don’t like direct eye contact and don’t like it when people try to make direct eye contact when they are talking with me, even though people are coached to do so because it’s ‘polite.’ Something which nondisabled folks would do well to remember is that there are many varying communication styles in the world and what works for one person doesn’t work for another.

  5. Additionally I feel weird about the “don’t speak slowly” thing because some people (visibly disabled or not) have disabilities that make them have trouble processing speech as fast as other people do. Sometimes I feel like directions about how to treat visibly disabled people–“don’t speak slowly! don’t use very simple words! don’t treat them like they might not be able to understand you!”–seem kind of insulting to people who have intellectual disabilities, ASD, etc. Obviously it’s *inaccurate* to assume that someone has ID because they’re using a wheelchair. But is it *offensive*?

    I’ve been in situations where I’ve been talking to a person who has ID and I’ve started out talking in my normal mumbly way because I don’t want to treat them differently from other people. But I’ve ended up talking more loudly and dramatically because there are some people who understand what you’re saying better if you’re being more over-the-top. I’m not saying that I talk this way to physically disabled people, but physical disability is one of quite a lot of things that cues to me to pay more attention to a person and wonder if they might be someone with a developmental disability. Which depending on the person sometimes causes me to adjust the way I talk. (To avoid sounding creepy I should mention that I have ASD and my interest in identifying other people who have DDs is more about being excited to see a person a bit like me than it is about finding people to “help” or patronize. When I identify or suspect people, I usually don’t talk to them because I don’t want to be seen as patronizing or rude.)

    Sorry if I’m being off-topic. That particular part stuck out to me, but the general content of your post is really helpful (I usually don’t offer to help people who look like they need help, because I’m afraid of being rude–so it’s good to have a set of rules I can try to apply in situations like that).

  6. Exactly. Exactly. I so get tied up in knots when people pull stuff like that.

    The other thing is that although we do not necessarily make the distinction in every day colloquial conversation, we do seem to have very strong personal and emotional reactions — quite legitimately I would say — to the words “can” and “may”. If, for example, I were to ask the same question, “May I help you?” I wonder if it would be different? To me, at least, the word “may” seems to turn the rhetorical force towards asking permission of the addressee. “Can I help you” is as your quote from Jesse_the _K suggests, more about the speaker rather than the addressee. I find it interesting that the small details of the language matter so much — and they really do matter.


  7. There’s been a few occasions in supermarkets recently where I’ve been concerned about accessibility of some items for wheelchair users (hell, I’m a woman of dead-on average height, and I have trouble reaching the top shelves).

    I’ve found that if I make eye contact, nod and gesture at the shelves while making a general remark about accessibility-fail, I seem to have at least identified myself as A-Person-With-Some-Clue before I go on to offer “Would you like a hand to reach anything?”. I’ve had two “no, thanks” and one “yes, thank you” so far in response (parmesan chees on the top shelf of the cold case). I had a short pleasant conversation with one of the “no thanks” respondees about her cat, since she was buying cat food.

    Better language precision makes me a better ally.

  8. Here via BADD, and thank you for writing about this.

    I too was taught to speak directly to someone’s face and ask what they wanted/needed.

    And now that I’m the one who often needs help, I appreciate the point about facing the person and looking at their face — I have some sort of processing disorder 2ary to multiple brain injuries, and especially with someone whose vocal patterns I don’t know, or if there are other sounds or busy sights around, I may not be able to understand what someone’s saying at all if I can’t see their face clearly.

  9. I’d like to second what zheyna and AWV said. However, i think sometimes this sort of thing falls under “unavoidable impairment clashes” – i remember one incident (on a DAN action ironically enough!) when i was giving some fairly crucial information and a deaf (small d as AFAIK not a sign language user) person said “I’m deaf. I can’t understand you unless you look me in the face while speaking to me”… my reply was “I’m autistic. I can’t look you in the face and speak to you at the same time.” Something of a stalemate ensued – i think i managed to look close enough to hir face while speaking for hir to lipread me effectively, but it was awkward, and made me feel like i was being oppressive by nature of my own impairment.

    Back on topic, my gut feeling is always that the right thing is don’t offer assistance, if someone actually *needs* assistance, they’ll ask, and that in an ideal world everyone would be empowered and unashamed to ask if they needed anything. However, this is problematic because it’s not always just about empowerment – people with some impairments can often be in a position of needing help but being unable to verbalise that, and would be massively grateful for an offer (eg. many autistic people, when overloaded, cannot initiate a conversation but can respond to one initiated by someone else)… so, i dunno, really. I always tend to err on the side of “don’t offer assistance that isn’t explicitly asked for”, tho (with the only exception perhaps being if it’s someone i know and a thing i know they find difficult/tiring/painful/whatever).

  10. I especially relate to the “don’t grab things out of people’s hands” and “don’t touch the assistive device” issues – having had my shopping YANKED out of my hands while I was saying “no thanks” not long ago, and having had someone REST THEIR CUP OF COFFEE on the back of my scooter. Yargh.

    I guess I’m a bit confused at some of the responses – I read in the OP “A question that I get from a lot of nondisabled folks as they are starting to explore ableism ” – so I understood s.e.smith as addressing currently-nondisabled folks with these tips. Being a BADD post too, it reads (and is currently labelled) as 101 for the CND.

  11. well, I’m not physically disabled and people don’t read me as disabled so…I mean, while I identify as disabled, I’m not sure that these directions affect me any differently than they would a cnd person. I also don’t know many people in real life who use wheelchairs so I feel just as clueless about this particular example as a cnd person would feel, I think. And I don’t know that zheyna or I would be perceived as “another disabled person” if we were offering help to a physically disabled person who read us as rude because of our body language.

    Sorry if I’m being dense but I guess I’m confused because I feel like the divide between people who are read as disabled in public and are offered help, and the people who offer help or consider offering help, isn’t at all clear-cut, and the latter group aren’t all non-disabled. I mean s.e. used ouself* in an example of how to offer help, but s.e. identifies as a pwd.

    I mean, obviously I’m disabled but I feel like for the purposes of this post I’m not disabled, if that makes sense, because I’m the person who would be in a position to offer help. On occasions when I am offered help it’s not because I’m read as disabled, it’s because my disability is being misread as something else.

    *sorry if this is conjugated wrong

  12. Hrm…the goal with this post was to get nondisabled people thinking about and reevaluating the ways in which they offer assistance, which is why I stressed in the intro that it’s about answering a question I am asked a lot by nondisabled folks, and why it was tagged 101; I don’t think of ‘interacting with people with disabilities’ as 101 for disabled folks! People with disabilities can and do help each other out (and are not necessarily read as disabled when doing so), but, for the most part, this post was designed as guidance for people who are not familiar interacting with disability. Folks who identify as disabled clearly are familiar with interacting with disability and they already treat people with disabilities like fellow human beings, which was the most critical point made in this post. They also certainly don’t need me telling them how to communicate with fellow PWDs.

    I’m also honestly feeling at this point like some readers are putting words in my mouth here, and it’s making me rather uncomfortable.

  13. AWV: I realise that in some other places, “Disability” is defined as “Wheelchair/Blind/Deaf”, and that’s the mode a lot of people have become used to thinking in and defending against. This blog isn’t one of those places. Here, we recognise that disability is huge and varied, that there is no bright line between “physical” and “mental” disabilities, that the very concept of “invisible” disability is really problematic. Here, anyone who identifies as disabled is disabled. No bright lines, no more-real-than-others, no “not really disabled”.

    The contributors have a wide range of disabilities, some of which you may know about if you’ve read the About page, and some of which you don’t, and of which very few fall into the extremely limited ‘mainstream’ view of “Disability”.

    (Sorry, just realised s.e. smith has replied too, but I’m addressing something different so I’ll leave this up.)

  14. Since this thread seems to be running a bit off the skids here, I’d like to try a redirect!

    The post itself is directed primarily at nondisabled people (who, after all, also read and engage with FWD and BADD) who want to know how they can best frame offers of assistance to PWDs (whatever that disability may be) who appear to be in need, generally focusing on interactions with strangers. The goal was to get nondisabled people thinking about how they use their bodies and their language (and all of the comments expanding upon language use are greatly appreciated) when they interact with us. It was certainly not designed to tell PWDs how to interact with each other (although I’m glad to hear from those of you who say that you are finding it helpful!).

    I’m really enjoying the personal stories like the one Lauredhel posted above; I think it might be helpful for nondisabled readers to read examples of interactions of this kind, whether they go wrong or right (which is why I included my example, which I realise in retrospect may have been a poor one).

    I’m terribly sorry; I wanted to write a resource for nondisabled people for BADD, answering a very common question, and in retrospect, I should have realised most FWD readers are not used to seeing 101 content aimed at nondisabled readers here.

  15. I think you have a very good point about the difference between ‘Do you need a hand with that?’ and ‘Can I help you?’

    I’m a shy shopper, and I like to spend a long time looking at clothes and thinking about my options, so I never want a salesperson to “help” me by suggesting outfits, finding my size, etc. I want to wrestle with my body and my budget in private, since decisions about what to buy are tough and personal. I prefer that nobody watch me at all, though I know that’s not realistic. Anyway, in some stores, people are constantly approaching and asking “Can I help you find something today?” and I feel pressured to let them sell me things — I always say no, but it feels like I’m rejecting something that they want to do. If they keep asking, I start to feel very uncomfortable and often leave before I was finished looking. Your post made me realize that the language is part of that. When they say “let me know if you need anything” or “do you have any questions” or “Would you like help with anything” it’s easier to say no because they are asking if I need something, not asking me to let them help.

    This isn’t meant to be a criticism of sales techniques or aggressive salespeople (some people like attention, there are commissions at stake, etc) — just that I really see your point about the difference in the language.

  16. Well, I want to make it clear that it was actually Jesse_the_K who brought up this key language distinction! It was one I hadn’t really explored until she discussed it, and it was a real lightbulb moment for me, which is why I quoted her here.

  17. This is great and very sensible advice. I don’t think people without disabilities always know how to offer help, and there is the minefield of not knowing if an offer is even appropriate. It all boils down to us being individuals. There is no rulebook, only situations for which we cannot always prepare. But having these sensible tips on what to say and how to act may encourage TABs to think twice before doing it wrong. It’s okay to offer help, just do it right.

  18. CL, a lot of the time retail salespeople are not on commission but are instructed by their corporate office to harass shoppers in that manner. There is a bit of a movement in shoppers who also work in retail to complain directly to managers/corporate about the harassment and to refuse to visit stores that continually ask shoppers if they can help them. I’m not sure where I’m going with this but know that there are plenty of us that feel the same way and that often the salespeople don’t want to pester you either.

  19. On retail/shop stuff — I worked for the Walton empire for a very pathetically short time, and training emphasized strongly the “10-foot rule”: if you come within 10 feet of a customer you must greet them and ask them how you can help them. Every time. Of course, all retail places emphasize this to their associates, especially the ones who might be near doors (if someone says hello when you walk in the door, you know someone’s watching and might be less apt to shoplift).

    Basically, if you enter any chain place (and a lot of locally owned ones) and don’t have someone immediately descend upon you and cling to your side the rest of your visit, you’re just lucky enough to have the shy/lazy/exhausted associate at that time 🙂 Everyone is supposed to be bothering you — it’s a priority in the corporate places. I hate it too, and I think most consumers hate it — I want help to be available but not sold to me, in a sense.

  20. Thanks, s.e., for fleshing these ideas out — you’ve certainly made it more clear for me *grin*.

    As far as audience goes: yes, it’s people with readily apparent disabilities (which often means visible assistive tech) who encounter the paradox of unhelpful help from currently non-disabled folks.

    However, I’ve been able to turn the lesson around for my own interactions with PWDs, including those with less readily apparent impairments.

    When I first began campaigning with people with cognitive impairments, I thought I had to bring the answers (because after all, I was “smart.”) Pondering my own experiences with unhelpful help, I realized how much more effective, and less offensive, it is to use the same open-ended questions which invite the other person to express their desires.

    Having experienced meltdown-related inability to respond myself, it’s a little easier to recognize it in others. I know enough to break down my questions into small bites, particularly yes/no bites, since very little expressive language is required to answer.
    “Do you need a hand?”
    “Is there somewhere you want to go?”
    “Do you have a paper that speaks for you?”
    “Is there someone you want to find?”

    Turns out these questions are just as useful when communicating with nondisabled people with PhDs (the answers may be snarkier).

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