Dear Imprudence: Do You Need Assistance?

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.

Prudence agrees:

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.

By 1 September, 2010.    101, autonomy, Dear Imprudence  ,  



13 Comments

  1. The advice to “ask-and-graciously-take-no-for-an-answer” is clearly right on, whether a person is disabled or not. Asking “How can I help?” is so much better than saying, “Here, let me help.” I’m one of those people who likes to struggle, thanks, and I don’t like people pre-empting my attempts to do it myself, ever. I’m just that way. Being a small woman, I don’t look to others as strong as I actually am, and I’ve had people just take things out of my hands in order to “help.” Very annoying.

    I have to say, though, that it does my heart good that people actually worry about how to help respectfully, even if they’re frozen in place for fear of offending. I encounter so many situations in which people just don’t care, like an epidemic of inconsideration that never seems to stop. I’ve followed people through innumerable doors that literally get slammed in my face because the person didn’t have the consideration to glance behind them to see whether someone else was coming through. So even if a person is hemming and hawing and not knowing what to do, it’s good to know that sometimes it means that the person is afraid of doing harm to another person’s dignity.

    Of course, that only goes so far. Then they have to ask Prudence for a clue. 🙂

  2. ah, the asking first is definitely key!
    my husband walks with two canes these days, and when he’s going through a door, people regularly “help” by pulling the door wide open for him, when the fact is, he’s often balancing against the door or leaning on it and whipping it open can push him perilously close to falling over in a heap! he works at a university, so there are always eager and “helpful” young people (thank heavens for that part) wanting to “help.” he usually simply explains it’s easier for him to have control of the door as he’s going through. (though, following after him coming out of the library one day, i heard him saying to a young, 5-year-old gentleman who offered to open the door, “that’s one i can’t refuse!”
    the kicker (and sometimes very annoying factor) is people who “know” what kind of help you need, whether you do or want it or not.

  3. Thanks for this. I’m deaf and people are always helping me with things that I really don’t need help with, as if my lack of hearing somehow effects the rest of my body. So I know how annoying/awkward/etc it can be when people jump in to help when I’m perfectly fine on my own. I’m never sure how to offer help without making it seem like I think the person is helpless.

  4. Offering help is polite, if it’s an offer, not an insistance. My response is generally, “no, thanks.” A person genuinely thinking of my needs won’t be offended by that response, but a person thinking of their own offer tends to be. Of course, they are the ones who know better than I do if I needed help in the first place, because what is life as usual for me often looks like struggling to them.

    I’ve been knocked off balance by people “helping” me open doors as well, and even had objects pulled from my arms to “help” me lift them. When I’ve yelped in startlement and unbalance, I’ve had to tend to their wounded feelings because they were “only trying to help” while simultaneously tending to my four limbs and cane. It’s actually easier for me to open a door myself than to walk through a door held by someone else, so I sweetly try to refuse that gesture as well. But the emphasis so often ends up placed on their intent and attempt to help, rather than my need, or non-need for the help. If it makes my situation harder, not easier, it wasn’t really “help,” now, was it?

  5. This is wonderful. Thank you. I’ve thought of get business cards made up that say, “There’s a word for continuing to act on someone who says ‘No,’ and it’s not ‘help.'”

  6. I am one of those disabled persons who gets offended at offers for assistance quite a lot of the time. The reason is that people often make assumptions not only that I need help, but with what exactly. People have literally pushed me in the wrong direction too many times for me to put up with their “niceness” anymore. Beyond getting me confused and lost, this “help” is inappropriate cause I am touch sensitive. People don’t know, of course, but if they’d asked politely whether they could help, they would’ve gotten as much a polite response as my mood allows at that point (I admit to sometimes still being blunt to polite people).

  7. I especially like “would you like help with that?” Twice the agency!

  8. This issue was all over the German blogosphere recently, after a blind blogger posted a harsh rant about an elderly lady who kept pushing her unsolicited “help” on him. There were more than 200 comments, a lot of them criticising the blogger.
    http://blindpr.wordpress.com/2010/08/22/umgang-mit-behinderten-menschen-euer-mitleid-kotzt-mich-an/
    Reading the comments I was rather surprised how awkward an encounter with a PWOD (person with obvious disabilities) seems to be for many people. This is probably a result of the segregation of disabled children in the local school system. Growing up with a wheelchair-using parent must have immunised me against the awkwardness, I guess, because it’s hard for me to understand.
    The one good thing about that comments thread: When I want to explain the word “ablesplaining” to someone over here, I can just point them to it. There are some textbook examples.

  9. Astrid, Paranoid Android – I think the unsolicited “help” for blind people is the creepiest – “No, I know the way. Let me touch you. Jeez, don’t be such a (insult for women if you’re a woman)/jerk! I was just trying to help!”

    I hold the door open for everyone, if I can. (If my arms aren’t full.) It got kind of silly Saturday, I was waiting for mom, and some people were moving in after checking in Thursday or Friday to avoid the crowds. The crowds also came with people from the university who would do things like open doors. When I saw people with their stuff coming, I’d go hold the door open.

    But there’s also an unspoken way that people say no, and I accept it – if they’re not right behind me, I’ll hold it open and look them in the eye and they shake their head.

    Now that I know that it’s easier for some people to get in without me being a “help,” I’ll just ask “can I get that for you?”

    Paranoid Android – you make a great point about the early segregation. I’d always see in Highlights magazine that drawings of classrooms included a kid in a wheelchair as well, but all the students in wheelchairs until college did not attend “normal” classes. I do not believe that every student in a wheelchair could not attend “normal” classes.

  10. Kaitlyn, I wonder if school sizes and locations affect that? I went to a small rural school, and there were a handful of special needs kids who were mainstreamed, including one in a wheelchair, however I never actually had classes with any of them (I think only one was even in my grade level).

    I do agree that more diversity in the school system is a good thing–I find myself feeling awkward around several groups of people because, after such a sheltered upbringing, I have a hard time pushing obvious differences away from the front of my mind. Although I feel fortunate in many ways for the childhood I did have, that’s one of the things that continually frustrates me.

  11. Looking at my post, I realize it could come across as “this is what happens at all schools!” rather than “this is what I’ve seen.”

    I’m pretty sure that on the base in Iceland, they mainstreamed children with disabilities. It just makes sense, considering the size.

    My mom works at HUGE high school (much bigger than they planned – like 6 years open and already classes in the cafeteria… during lunch hour!) and there are much more mainstreaming efforts there. But then again, I get the behind-the-scenes look at it. Not a good enough to find out why some do and some don’t.

    I wonder if it has to do with money/parental involvement, because a parent made them mainstream a student who could not be. On a tangent, mom talks about this girl with a mixture of anger and happiness. She’s angry at clueless TAB adults who baby talk her or play down her violent outbursts. She’s happy when she’s got a good rapport with her.

    For every football coach, there should be 10 people working in “special ed.”

  12. Ugh. Reminds me of several things, all unpleasant. The assistant at the airport who stalked my boyfriend and me through the baggage area and asked if she could help us. Several times. Culminating in the time when I was having just a bit of trouble putting up the hood of my rain-jacket because I already had gloves on. From behind me, she announces, “Oh, I can get that!” and touches my clothes. All kinds of ickiness there… and the trouble I was having was, in fact, nothing to do with my disabilities.

    A more recent time was a man who asked if I needed help putting my wheelchair in my car. I told him thanks, but I’m fine. And he insisted… and I responded with a firm, “NO. I’ve GOT it.” And he came over and wrenched my chair from my hands. (And, of course, proceeded to put it in wrong, too.) I got into my car shaking and crying. My wheelchair and I had it and he had no right to take it from me without my consent, not even in the name of “helping”.

    Asking is good, but asking is worthless if there’s only one acceptable answer. “No” must be valid. And, um, why oh why do some people think it’s appropriate to “help” people with disabilities by doing things they would never in their lives (I hope) consider appropriate otherwise? I’ve had a strange man follow me two steps behind presumably because he was afraid I’d fall. But he was a strange man and I was a young woman… one who would probably be unable to escape if necessary. It was really, really creepy…. and yet I’m told, “He was only trying to help!” Far too much is excused, I think, by people “only trying to help!” No. Ask. Accept “no” as an answer. Accept instruction (or even ask for it: “What help are you wanting, exactly?”). In any case, don’t just do… especially after your help has been declined.

  13. I know disabled men get unwanted “help,” but do more women encounter it, like you did, Beth? (CREEPY)

    Your post reminded me of any number of stories from women online/IRL about men offering “help” and getting nasty (yes, “just” an insult will creep me out for a while, making me nervous about my route – I told 2 guys they shouldn’t be smoking next to the door (it is against the rules). I did call them a-holes. They called me another name and laughed in my face. I was terrified of running into them later.)…

    It seems like another lovely intersection – female and disabled? Doubly helpless and doubly not in need of bodily autonomy!