A fascinating conversation unfolded during the livechat with Prudence this week. A reader wrote in to ask:
Q. Should I Have Helped a Disabled Person? A few weeks ago, I was washing my hands in the ladies’ room when a woman with a physical handicap came in. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that she was struggling to get the stall door open, and I froze. I didn’t want to insult her by helping her—she was able to get it open, but it required more work—and I didn’t want to seem unkind if she was open to help. What should I have done?
Well, speaking for myself, it’s really awkward when I am in a public space, having a problem, and someone is standing there obviously valiantly pretending not to notice. I tend to appreciate a ‘do you need assistance’ or, you know, a helping hand if it’s evident, that, say, I cannot move to open a door because I am laden with packages or groceries or whatever. I will probably say ‘no’ if asked because I am pretty self reliant and stubborn, in which case I appreciate an ‘ok’ as opposed to a resentful glare, and then we can all move on with our lives. But it is, you know, rather awkward when someone is clearly in a dither about whether to ask if I need assistance.
A: I think when you see someone struggling with a door for whatever reason—disability, hands full with packages, pushing a stroller—the polite thing to do is ask, “Can I give you a hand?” Occasionally you will be rebuffed, but more often you will get a thanks. And if you’re rebuffed, don’t take it personally; just accept your help wasn’t needed.
I love that Prudence stressed asking first. Not assuming. Asking. Checking to see if someone needs help before jumping on it. That’s key, and it’s something that often gets left out.
Another reader wrote in with my favourite kind of story, the ‘I tried to help a person with disabilities and all I got was meanness because the person was mean and all disabled at me!’ narrative, where I feel like the person is leaving out the part of the story about how the ‘help’ actually involved attempting to force someone to accept it:
Q. Re: Helping a Disabled Person: I once offered help to a disabled person who was having trouble getting a door open. The person was offended and reported me to H.R. I had to go to sensitivity training.
Ah, yes. Doesn’t this come up every single time nondisabled people talk about helping people with disabilities? Ohnoes! Sensitivity training! Somehow, I suspect that comment went through the context filleter before it got to the livechat, because there is obviously more to that story.
But, it gets better! A disabled reader wrote in to lay it down:
Q. For Helping: I totally agree that the person Helping tried to help is a massive jerk. But as a person with a disability myself, I’d like to suggest one thing: Next time, do us the favor of asking, “May I get that for you?” That way the person can tell you what he wants. A jerk might still not like that, but most people appreciate being able to choose between getting help (that they may have wanted to ask for but felt weird about) and refusing help (if they’re exasperated with getting “May I help yous” every time they turn around). And, for the love of beans, please, be OK with “No.” Politely telling someone “No thanks, I’ve got it” and receiving a murderous glower in response is sadly frequent.
Nailed it. This person covered the ‘ask first, don’t assume’ issue along with the ‘when someone says no, don’t get all huffy about it’ issue, and Prudence duly thanked the reader for the input.
This was a case where Prudie’s initial advice, responding to the first question, was right on. But it was really nice to have the voice of a person with disabilities centred in the conversation, especially after the usual sour grapes ‘meanie!!!!!’ comment got dragged out.