Sunday, February 13, 2011

What do you say ...

What do you say when someone offers to help you go to the washroom when you are perfectly capable of managing on your own?

I'll give some background to this story. I have a disability that requires the use of a wheelchair, particularly in icy conditions such as we have right now. I went for supper with a couple people today, one of whom had never met me before. She saw me wheeling around before we made the supper plans, but she also saw me walking outside, pushing my wheelchair on some uneven surfaces that the wheelchair would have gotten stuck on. Still, when we got to the restaurant and she realized I was heading to the washroom, she asked if she should come and help me. Honestly, I think my friend and I were more embarrassed for the girl than I was affected by the comment. It really was about not understanding that someone who uses a wheelchair CAN be independent. Can toilet independently. Can walk sometimes (for some people, anyway). Can work. Can get around relatively independently. Can live a relatively normal life.

Yet, I think this is a common misconception regarding disabilities. There are many people who assume that as soon as someone has difficulty walking or uses a wheelchair, they need help with everything. When I was younger, someone also offered to actually wipe my butt for me. She made this comment in public, in a restaurant. At that time, I was very indignant. Offended. I couldn't believe my ears! Don't get me wrong, having help sometimes is a really good thing. When it's done for the reason of 'I want to do this for you because I love you and I'm doing something special' or when there genuinely is a need, it's definitely a good thing. At the same time, it needs to be invited, or there needs to be an understanding between friends as to what kind of help is beneficial and welcomed. There also needs to be an understanding that sometimes people do nice things for others just because they care - the person receiving the help needs to accept this too. It's kind of like the opening doors for ladies concept or the opening / closing car doors for the ladies concept. Chivalry at its finest. I think people want to be helpful. They want to be nice. Sometimes they go too far and it becomes an insult.

Going back to the situation today, the underlying statement made when offering help to use the toilet is that the person offering assistance believes the person can't function independently at the most basic level. This is often seen as an insult unless the person knows the situation and help is required and welcomed. The same thing happens for people with disabilities when they go to a coffee shop. They are all ready to order their drink, but so often, if they are together with someone else, they are completely ignored and the person they are with is asked for both drink orders. It's dehumanizing. It's humiliating. It's ignorance at its finest.

For me, I've come to live with this. I no longer feel dehumanized or humiliated. At times, I am indignant, though. Instead, I often wonder at how people can have such poor understanding of disability. Even if I physically couldn't carry my drink, I'd still want to be asked what my order is rather than being talked over. (Again, this is situation dependent because sometimes people do order drinks for other people - especially when treating someone). Sometimes I make comments to help educate. Sometimes I make comments that may come off as more rude than helpful. Sometimes I let it go - like today. Today, I felt like the person just really didn't get it, but explaining it would only embarrass her. That wasn't my intention today. She genuinely wanted to help. She genuinely wanted to do whatever she could. She seemed vulnerable in her own way, which may have been one of my assumptions. I just don't need that kind of help and I kindly told her I'm ok and can manage without assistance. And she was ok with that.

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