Image description: A fat person in a wheelchair with a big red bag of perpetual gratitude on the lap.

When I exit the building, in my manual chair and on my own, I need to do it by myself without any kind of assistance. If people want to help they do one of two things: they hold open one of the two doors, or they attempt to hold both doors open which then places their body directly in my way. To get through I simply roll up to the doors, place the tip of each foot rest against one of each of the doors and then I give a shove. The shove is strong enough to swing the doors out and then I give another push and I’m out. I then grab the doors and use them to push myself away from the building. It’s hard to explain and it sound complicated and, I’ll admit, it took me a while to learn. But now that I know how to do it, it’s quite easy.

So, help that isn’t help.

I’ve discussed this before but before you decide ‘same song different day’ I want to talk about something other than the battles we, as disabled people, do with unhelpful helping others. I want to talk about an assumption behind the help. I had a discussion with someone about this, a non-disabled person, and she said something interesting. She said, “At least they are acting out of kindness and that matters.”

I thought about that for a while and wondered if I’m, when I’m angry about fighting off helpful ‘kindness’ so I can actually do what I need to do, being small hearted. I wondered why the actions bothered me so much. I’ve talked before about the bag full of gratitude that people with disabilities have to haul around with them, like a crippled Claus, to dole out to those desperate for affirmation of personal goodness. But, that’s not it. I don’t think that’s what bothers me.

Finally I began to question the assumption all together. Is it really kindness? Does the act spring from the  pools of humanity that swirl around our perceptions of others? I have noticed that those same people who rush to help me, don’t rush to help others who need it. The woman carrying whacks of groceries – she’s on her own. The fellow delivering a huge pizza – he gets the door on his own. These same people who rush to help me, don’t rush to help them. Now this isn’t a scientific study and I’m sure that there are times when everyone helps everyone else, and perhaps my disability trumps other people’s needs and changes the game, but whatever, it’s what I see.

I wondered then if the act of kindness isn’t kindness. Is it an act of pity? I’m not sure but it certainly is an act of assumption. That assumption is ‘that poor fellow in the wheelchair can’t manage his life without the kind interference of random strangers.’ That would be followed by, ‘I wouldn’t want that life.’ Now, and I hate to say this, sometimes I do need the interference of random strangers. But I think everyone does at one time or another. But, mostly, I don’t. And when I do, I ask.

My competence, which would be acknowledged in letting me get on with what I’m doing unmolested, would require a rewiring of the perception of disability and life with disability. Who wants to do that? Who wants to challenge a strongly held belief that life with disability is lived in constant submission to the ‘kindness’ of others.

After thinking all this, I decided to try something out. Here’s how that worked. I was leaving the building in my manual chair and just as I was to push through a young fellow, a student, rushed over to open one door. I thanked him and asked him if he could do me a favour. He nodded, confused thinking he was already doing me a favour. I said, could you let go of the door and just watch me come through the door. Now you all know how I hate being watched doing stuff. But in this case, I invited it. He stood there, watched me get through the door, and get through easily.

In my heart I thought this might challenge his stereotype as to the perpetual neediness of people with disabilities.

Did it work?

Well, you be the judge.

He said, “I’ve never been so inspired.”