Enabling the Disabled
“Abled does not mean enabled. Disabled does not mean less abled.” – an often-used phrase to promote and encourage the successful acceptance of disabled people by the wider community. However, there are many barriers to gaining equality - some obvious and others less apparent. One such barrier is having help forced upon you. People with physical and mental impairments often receive well-meaning offers of public assistance, but not always in the most positive or helpful way. Sometimes the good intentions of people have unintended consequences. I’m frequently pushed, pulled or grabbed in my wheelchair without warning by strangers who believe they are trying to help me. When someone comes up and starts pushing my wheelchair out of the blue, personally to me it’s like being picked up and carried like a baby. This sort of sudden and unexpected help is invasive and can be demeaning and potentially dangerous. When I’m negotiating a hill, I lean forward in my wheelchair to help maintain equilibrium. If someone believes I am struggling to get up the hill and unexpectedly starts pushing my chair, I could lose my balance and fall over. I do understand that people think they’re doing the right thing. It’s not being done out of malice and I do not want anybody to think that I’m asking for them to stop offers of help. Just Ask There’s one golden rule: just ask. If you see someone and you think they might need help, don’t just jump in and grab them. Simply ask if they need a hand, and that way you can find out what, if any, assistance you can give. By asking if help is required and listening to the response, you will be able to discover what they need, how to make sure they are safe, and then both of you will enjoy a positive experience. When you see someone with a disability appearing to struggle in different environments, you should remember that it’s probably something we do or negotiate every day and generally we’ll ask for help, if we need it. A personal example: In most supermarkets I can’t reach ¾ of the products from my wheelchair because the shelving is too low or too high, so I’ll seek out a passerby to help me out. Like any physically or mentally impaired person, when I’m grabbed by people without warning they are taking away my independence, they’ve presumed I am incapable, and they’ve not given me a choice. Don’t Be Offended I know it sometimes takes a lot of guts for people to go up to a total stranger and offer to help them, and I’ve enjoyed some amazing conversations. I do have to rely on the kindness of strangers sometimes to help me live my life as independently as possible. I often hear people say they are worried about offending someone if they offer help. I am never offended by polite offers. However sometimes I don’t not take up the offers of assistance. It’s not because I’m offended, it’s because I value and want to maintain my independence. My individuality and mobility are essential to my quality of life. While I may do some things slower or differently in undertaking normal daily tasks, preserving my autonomy is paramount. So, having people take away my autonomy and making decisions for me without my consent can be both paternalistic and patronising. If you’d like to know more, there’s an international hashtag currently trending labelled #JustAskDontGrab (https://twitter.com/hashtag/justaskdontgrab?lang=en) which seeks to encourage people to offer assistance in a respectful, consensual and helpful way.