Ah, good intentions: everyone’s favourite get-out-of-jail-free card. It seems that you can get away with anything, as long as you were trying to be a good person. Every day, people excuse discourteous, disrespectful, and even dangerous behaviour because they “meant well.”
A stranger assumes a blind girl wants to ride the escalator, leading her onto it without explanation. Dangerous, but it’s okay, because she assumed she was being kind.
A mother rearranges her son’s entire apartment while he’s away, so that he doesn’t know where anything is when he returns. Discourteous, but it’s okay because she was just trying to help him out.
A teacher addresses her third grade class, assigning a student to play with the only blind member of the group. Humiliation (for the student) and resentment (from the rest of the class) follows. Disrespectful, but it’s okay because she was just trying to foster tolerance and inclusiveness.
I’ve said a hundred times that it’s okay to make mistakes. I’ve also reassured sighted people that their kindness is appreciated, even when it’s misguided. What I’m weary of doing is looking the other way when someone tries to cancel out the damage they’ve done by citing good intentions. I’ve witnessed people say and do terrible things in the name of “meaning well”, and I’m sick of pretending I’m okay with it. It’s not okay with me, and it’s not okay with the vast majority of blind people I know.
It seems to stem from the belief that any help is good help; any kindness is worthy of gratitude; and every time a sighted person deigns to do something nice, we should all be brimming with thanks. But what if we don’t really want that specific help? What if we like how our apartments are organized? What if we had no intention of going on that escalator, and could find it ourselves if we did? And what if we prefer to make our own friends, rather than having people assigned to us?
Generally, we know exactly what we want, and we’re normally okay with asking for it. This does not give us license to be demanding, but it does afford us the opportunity to choose which types of assistance we can benefit from and which we’d rather discard. You might think you’re helping me if you follow your charitable instincts and “fix” bits of my life for me, but the cold, hard truth is if I didn’t ask you to do it, chances are I didn’t want it done.
Still confused? Try a thought experiment. How would you feel, as a sighted person, if your mother came over one day and waited till you left to completely reorganize your home? You did not ask her to do this for you, and you definitely did not appreciate having to hunt for everything once you got back. It’s even worse for blind people, because it takes us so much longer to find everything once it’s been displaced. We occasionally use complex systems of organization, so moving our stuff around has greater consequences than you might imagine. That’d be fairly irritating, yes?
Let’s skip past the sheer inconvenience and danger of having yourself or your belongings tampered with in the name of good intentions. Let’s amble over to the area of respect, because it needs attention: if a sighted person treated a fellow sighted person the way they treat blind people, there would be uproar. You’d need an awful lot of nerve to go around messing with other people’s things in general, wouldn’t you? And you’d have to have even more nerve to grab a complete stranger without permission and direct them elsewhere, right? So why does overbearing and presumptuous behaviour magically become acceptable if the person in question is disabled? Is your need to do your good deed of the day more important than their need for personal autonomy? I hope not!
Most people aren’t consciously aware that what they’re doing is neither wanted nor appreciated, but I know an awful lot of people who have been warned, and warned again. Still, they persist. Parents and other relatives, especially, are notorious for this; they assume that whatever they’re doing is okay, even if they’re asked to stop. They mean well, and that should be the only thing that matters. Shut up and be grateful, why don’t ya?
It’s not acceptable. It never was and it never will be. If you want to flex your kindness muscles—and I recommend that you do, by the way—ask how you can help. Except in very, very special cases where a disabled person is in immediate danger, put your good intentions away and pull out respect. That is something I can be grateful for.