A Little Help For The Helpers

I’m sitting in a Starbucks, lazily enjoying a quiet day after a rough week, and my lip gloss rolls off the table. As I lean over to see where it ended up, a woman starts to reach for it. Then she pauses and asks me, “Can I help?” “Yes, thank you!” She hands me the lip gloss and I thank her again. She tells me to have a good day and goes on her way.

Another time I was here and approaching the door to leave. I can push my way through this particular door when I need to, but it’s pretty awkward. A man saw me and asked, “Can I help with the door?” “Yes, thank you!” He opened the door and I thanked him again. He told me to have a good day and we both went on our way.

Later that same day, I was meeting a friend at a restaurant. I decided to wait at one of the patio tables out front. As I shoved a chair out of my way, a man walking by asked, “Can I help with that?” “No, thanks, I got it!” He told me to have a good day and went on his way.

Super boring stories, right? Simple, quick, natural, pleasant, but not really noteworthy interactions.

But I mentally awarded each of these strangers a gold star for not being weirdos. People get so weird around disability! Like they think they need a whole new set of social rules that they aren’t familiar with, when the regular social rules will actually work just fine.

“I never know if I should help or not!” You wouldn’t believe how much time I spend coaching people through this able-bodied problem. To an extent, I get it. These are usually kind-hearted people whose first impulse is to rush in and help. But then they’re afraid of insulting someone by offering unnecessary help. And I sincerely appreciate the fact that they’re thinking about how the other person will feel, not just how good they’ll look for being a helper! In fact, I applaud the thought that’s accompanying their good heart. At the same time…. they’re really overthinking things. It’s not that complicated.

If you’re not 100% sure that your help is or isn’t welcome, just ask. Sometimes I’m secretly hoping someone will offer, because I hate asking for help. Whether I need help or not, it’s always easy for me to say “yes please” or “no thanks.” I’ll even smile while I say it. I’m not the Lorax, and I don’t speak for all disabled people. I can’t promise everyone else will smile when you ask if they’d like help. But it seems like a generally safe approach. I can’t remember ever being offended by somebody making the offer. Once or twice I’ve been confused, when I couldn’t figure out what exactly the person was offering to help me with, but never offended.

Here’s an example of how not to do it…. And I feel a little bad about using an example from my professional life, because I  actually work in an amazing place with incredible colleagues. I’ve always received any help or support that I need at work, without anyone making a big deal or being condescending about it. This incident was a rare exception, and it happened quite a few years ago.

We were all heading into a meeting in a computer lab. I was walking in with a friend, and we spotted two seats together over on the other side of the lab. She went ahead to grab the seats and move a chair for me, while I started to go the long way around where the path was clearer.

I was stopped, though, by two other teachers on a mission to be helpful.

“Here, Kristine, we can move a chair for you. Do you want to sit over here?”

“Oh, no, thanks, I was just heading over there!” I smiled and gestured in the direction I was trying to go.

“No, really, we can make room!”

“No, it’s ok, I’m fine, but thanks!”

“But we can move! Really! It’s no big deal!”

“No, I’m fine!” I start to walk away, thinking that will decisively end the conversation.

Nope. Then I got yelled at. These were teachers with very loud voices. (Actually, most teachers have loud voices. Even those of us with softer voices by nature, know how to project.) “Kristine! Come right here! We’ll just move this chair, and hey, so-and-so, you don’t mind moving so Kristine can sit here, right?” They were being so loud, and pushy, and making other people move, and pushing furniture around, and absolutely weren’t taking no for an answer.

I was embarrassed by the scene, so I finally just slipped into the spot they’d created to shut everyone up. Then I sat there and fumed through the entire meeting.

I was angry that I’d been silenced and ignored. I was angry that their need to be helpful was overriding my right to make my own choices. I was angry that I wasn’t allowed to sit with the friend I’d walked into the meeting with. I was angry that they were all sitting there pleased with themselves for being good helpers. I was angry that I’d been dragged into this loud scene. I was angry that I was being ordered around like a child. I was angry with myself for letting it happen.

The initial offer was absolutely fine, even appreciated. And I’m generally ok with one, “Are you sure?” But the absolute insistence that help will be given, and it will be given on their terms, is not welcome. Nor is it helpful.

Just don’t be a weirdo. Ask the person if they’d like help. Then respect whatever answer is given. It’s not that hard. And I suspect that isn’t a disability-specific social rule. I feel like it’s a norm that will serve you no matter who you’re interacting with.

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