I am writing this piece because this happens to me almost every day. Someone touches me or tries to help me without my consent. I am very active in my community with my work, classes, church, weekend retreats, 12- step meetings and physical therapy. I encounter able-bodied people every day. Able-bodied people are those who do not have disabilities (or, for the purposes of this writing, people who do not appear to have disabilities). Able-bodied people often feel uncomfortable around me. I understand that because it is not every day that abled-bodied people see someone like me out and about. They see me walking slowly with my two crutches. They see me out of breath. They see me fidgeting in my seat trying to get comfortable. They want to offer me assistance. Sometimes they do. I am always grateful when they ask. Sometimes I say “yes”, and I am grateful for the assistance they provide. Sometimes I say “No” or more likely, I say “No thank you” because I am polite. When they listen, I am grateful that they offered and that they listened to me and respected my answer. Other times people insist on “helping me” even after I have said “No” and that frustrates the hell out of me. This is what I refer to as a violation of my consent. My close friends never do this. They have known me long enough to know better. It is the acquaintances I have or strangers I meet in my daily routine that usually will violate my consent in this matter.
You see, we often talk about consent when it comes to sex. Consent is important is so many other areas of life though. Consent should be asked for before you assist someone with a disability. Consent should be asked for before you hug someone or touch someone at all. Consent should be asked of children as well, so that they learn that they have the right to say no to any unwanted touch. Even if it’s a kiss or a hug from grandma.
I have heard able-bodied people say they don’t know if they should ask a disabled person if they need help or not. They don’t want to have their heads bitten off. I will give you my opinion on the matter. Keep in mind, I can only speak for myself. I cannot speak for every person with a disability. I never get angry at someone for offering to assist me. I only get angry when people will try to assist me without asking, or if they start to assist me after I have already said “No”. I will give some examples below for clarification.
There have been many times when people have offered me assistance and I have said “Yes, please”. This is assistance that I appreciate and is very helpful. Here are some examples. I leave work for the day and walk out to the parking lot full of snow and ice. A co-worker offers to get my car for me. I say yes, hand him my keys, and he pulls my car right up to the curb for me. I give consent if I am at a restaurant with friends and they offer me the end seat. If I am trying to carry something in my hands along with my crutches (a cup of tea, a grocery bag, etc.) and someone offers to carry it for me. If I am walking to my car in a parking lot and the parking attendant offers to get my car for me. I say yes thank you and they do so. Someone walking ahead of me holds a door open for me. I go to a meeting and someone offers to get a chair for me. I say yes and they do so. These are all examples of times where there is a perceived need, assistance is offered, an answer of yes (consent) is given, and that help is gratefully received.
Now let’s talk about ableism. Let’s talk about when my physical presence makes you so uncomfortable that you feel the need to “help me” without asking for my consent or to “help me” after I told you “No”. There are several times where I have replied No to an offer of assistance, and that “No” was either ignored or met with anger by the able-bodied person. Please note that “No” is a complete sentence. I shouldn’t have to explain to you in our 1-2-minute exchange, why I am saying “No” and turning down your offer of assistance. Please just accept “No” as my answer. I will explain further in this writing why I often say no, but it should not be required of me every time assistance is offered. The answer “No” should be enough. Here are some examples.
When you come up behind me as I am opening a door and you grab the door for me. I must always be mindful of who is around me when opening a door. Having using crutches for most of my adult life, I have learned how to open doors. I usually lean into them to help keep my balance. So, when someone comes up behind me and grabs the door, it can throw off my balance. This makes me very anxious and fearful when I am out in public.
When you see me walking to a certain door of a building and you advise me that there is a closer door to where I am standing. If I say, “No thank you”. Please accept that. Truth is, most of the time, I have been to this building before and I know the layout. I know that there are steps on the inside of that door, or maybe one high step, so I am choosing to walk a further distance to a better door for me. Maybe I know that there is a bathroom I can get to easily by that further door and it is less crowded with people outside of the building rather than inside the building. When you have a disability, these are things you pay attention to. I have my reasons for walking to a further door. I shouldn’t have to explain my reasoning to you. A response of “No” should be enough.
Another example may be when you see me carrying my backpack. I know… I am short and I look young. I know when I put the backpack on, I look like a little kid on their way to school. I have heard all the jokes. Truthfully, the jokes get old. Truth be told, backpacks are much easier to use when you walk with crutches. I appreciate you offering to carry it for me, but I have chosen the backpack so that I can carry it myself. Truth be told, I am carrying items I need in that backpack. These may include typical items such as a pen and notebook but also include items specific to my disability such as a couple of diapers, some pads, catheters and a change of clothing. I would feel very anxious with someone else carrying it for me. I shouldn’t have to tell you what is in my backpack. A response of “No” should be enough.
The next example has to do with ableism and disrespect, rather than with offering assistance, but it is another thing people do that agitates me so bear with me. When you see me and you want to tell me how inspiring I am, for just going about my day, please don’t. Many people have told me this. It gets old. I am just a person with a disability trying to go about my day the same as everyone else. It is actually not a compliment to hear “You are so brave” just for going about my daily routine, or to hear “When I want to have a pity party, I think of you and how, if you can keep going, so can I.” These statements are not complimentary. They don’t make me feel brave or inspirational. These statements bring to my attention the fact that you see me “as less than”. I don’t see myself “as less than” anyone else until I hear these types of phrases from people. Thinking of me as less than is not respecting me. Now if you want to tell me I am brave, because I write blogs, I do presentations, and I put my shit out there, go ahead. That would be a great compliment. That is something that I am proud of, but just going to the grocery store like everyone else, is not being brave. I hope you can see the difference.
I do recognize that most of you are trying to be helpful when you try to assist me and interact with me and I recognize that your behavior comes from a place of caring. If you have gotten this far reading this blog, I want to thank you! It shows me that you care and that is the most important thing. We can all learn to be better in our daily interactions. I also want to assure you that I know my own strengths and weaknesses. If I need help, I will not be shy about asking for help.
I wanted to get this out there because I know people do not understand why I get frustrated. I need to get this off my chest so that I can continue my daily routines. I don’t want the anger to build up inside me. It can be dangerous for me if resentments build and I start to withdrawal from my daily routines. I would rather put it out there on paper and make an honest attempt to be better understood. Maybe if more people understand me, they can reach the place in my life of friendship rather than staying an acquaintance. If you have questions, please feel free to ask me. If you have a disability and can relate to some of these situations, please tell me how you handle them. Thank you for reading!