Welcome to another month at IndependenceChick’s nest. Let’s get to it.
As you know, I’m an avid reader of the Dear Prudence column on Slate.com. Recently, an advice-seeker wrote in about an encounter with a woman in a wheelchair. She had seen this woman trying to get into her vehicle and assumed she was struggling. So the letter writer proceeded to rush up to the woman and try to help her into the vehicle. Apparently, the letter writer was so insistent and borderline aggressive, she drove the woman in the wheelchair to tears. She wanted Prudence to tell her, was what she had done out of line? Shouldn’t she have been willing to help, and shouldn’t the other woman have accepted?
Well, once the stupidity stopped burning my eyes, I hopped on over to Facebook, where readers can comment on columns. I left a quick comment on the fact that this letter is why the world needs more education about people with disabilities. It occurs to me though, people with disabilities could use a refresher course on something, too. Here it is: as a person with a disability, you have the right to refuse help.
That might seem counterproductive. It’s not a popular view of PWDs, because it goes against the traditional narrative of “help the handicapped.” What we think of as common sense says, PWDs always need help, so they should always accept it gratefully. “Common sense” also says that PWDs won’t always ask for help, so the “heroic” and “able” temporarily able-bodied population must remain ready to step in. (A little reminder from the last post, TAB people: you are not Superman). Now, I’m all for common sense, but in this case, common sense isn’t what’s going on. Instead, what we have here is another benevolently meant, but harmful construct. To quote Cool Hand Luke, what we have here is a failure to communicate–more accurately, a failure to let a certain population communicate.
I will admit it–sometimes I don’t ask for help when I need it. That stems from insecurity and the desire to be independent–you know, the goal that is foisted on PWDs from day one, despite the fact they’re taught they need help with everything? My family and friends have also encouraged me to ask for help because “People feel awkward watching you struggle.” But, knowing what I know now, here’s what I wish I could say. One, my life is not always about what makes temporarily able-bodied people feel comfortable. Two and more importantly, I don’t always struggle, and even if I do, it doesn’t mean I can’t do things myself.
Like so many constructs in Disability Land, this one boggles my mind. I mean, TAB people are given the opportunity to figure things out, to modify tasks as needed, even to struggle a little. It’s actually encouraged; teachers, coaches, and mentors are always there, but they want people to succeed on their own. So once again, why are people with disabilities held to a completely different standard? And once again, why are they still maligned and accused of not being “independent” when they do request help? You can’t have it both ways, TAB world–make up your mind.
Furthermore, as I said, a person with a disability does not exist to make a TAB person comfortable, to inspire that person, or make that person feel better. Hear this: We do not exist for others’ benefit. Just like anyone, we want to positively influence others, but being alive is enough. Just because we don’t directly benefit you, does not mean we shouldn’t exist. Therefore, “Ask for help so others don’t feel awkward” is a completely fallacious statement. It’s borderline dangerous, because it contributes to casual ableism.
As a person with a disability, you have the right to ask for help and modifications. That right is discussed often; in fact, it’s law (ADA, IDEA, etc.) But what nobody’s talking about is a right that’s just as important. You have the right to refuse help. Nobody can force you to take it, and certainly nobody should force themselves on you with help, no matter how well-intentioned. Your body, your adaptive equipment, your vehicle, your life–they are yours. You decide who comes in and out, who gets access to your personal space, who gets to help, and when. You can say “no” without apologizing or feeling guilty, and no one should make you feel ungrateful for that.
Go forth and ask for help today–or not! And, a final note for the temporarily able-bodied: go forth and treat your neighbors with disabilities as neighbors today. Ask; don’t assume they always want help. That’s real help.