Several times, I have discussed the reality of having to ask for help once in a while during my day-to-day of life as someone who is disabled. I believe that asking for help in this position is a bit more complex than one might think. As I’ve said, doing so is a sign of trust, and doing so takes courage. Yet is it relinquishing my independence? At one point I might have said yes…but now, I have to say that I don’t think so. Not entirely. Does asking for help make me more resourceful? Possibly.
Asking for help is just a part of the dynamic. What comes next is receiving or actively lending the help. In my experience, there appears to be a big difference between helping too little, helping just enough, or helping too much.
When I was in college, there was a precarious stairwell on campus that led to the dining hall, which despite its instability, constituted a much faster route than going all the way around the student center. One evening, a fellow student and acquaintance saw me on the stairwell, and asked if I needed help going down the stairs. I said no. She then asked if she could take the crutches from my free hand. I said no, thank you, I’ve got it. In other interactions, my refusal was always enough. It was the final word. Except this time, something strange happened.
The student reached over and snatched the crutches from my grasp. “Can I just help you?”
As you know, I’d like to think I’m quite familiar with my own capabilities, as well as my own limits. Therefore, if I say that I don’t need your help, then I don’t need your help, because I’ve already found a way to do something unassisted. So, grabbing my crutches from my hand is an invasion of personal space and crosses a line. This fellow student also made an assumption about the kind of help I may have needed, and inserted herself into the situation when I never asked for her to be there in the first place.
This is what I’d like to call “over-helping,” or helping too much. Those that do so may not be aware of it, but it still feels like they are making assumptions, when a more effective approach could be asking the question, “What can I do to help you?” I wish this question came up more often than it does. It gives me a greater sense of control over a situation, and this kind of control puts me at ease.
Another example of over-helping occurred when I was in high school. I was recovering from surgery and therefore was accompanied by a paraprofessional. She was a perfectly nice person: very kind, energetic and generally lovely. Although, once as I was getting ready to leave school for the day, she reached over and tried to help me button my coat. It seemed like she meant well, but quite frankly, I didn’t appreciate the gesture. I can button my own coat. This too felt like an invasion of personal space, but going beyond that, it’s an example of infantilization. You can read more about what I have to say about that here.
“Helping too little” is also problematic. A small instance of this, yet one that occurs very often, is when I have to open a door while using my crutches. Like I’ve said before, it’s a lot harder to do than I may make it seem. I always have to struggle and clamber through the space, my crutches knocking everywhere, which is disruptive and sometimes embarrassing. Nine out of ten times, no one nearby offers to help me with the door, even when I think it’s quite obvious that I am having difficulty.
Now, those around me who are non-disabled may think, “If I help her with the door, maybe she’ll be offended and/or furious,” and perhaps they don’t want to overstep or put themselves in that position of assuming I need help all the time. Listen, I get it, trust me. I really do understand why some who are disabled might get offended at this gesture, and I understand too how non-disabled folks may not know how to help or how to go about even offering it. Personally, though? If you see me having a really hard time opening the door any where, please, for goodness sake, open it for me. I promise I won’t get offended. Doors that cannot be opened by that little blue accessible button are quite a hassle. Especially if they’re heavy. I implore the non-disabled folks out there reading this to take my small piece of advice. Chances are I’ll really, truly appreciate you for making my day-to-day life just a little bit easier.