A Disabled Person Refused Your Help? Keep Calm And Carry On

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: one of the inescapable pitfalls of blindness is a lack of precision. Even with the help of a guide dog, no blind person is going to be as precise in their every movement as most sighted people. In familiar surroundings, we can dazzle people with our ability to navigate with grace, but take us outside our elements and we can flounder a little. It will take us a little more time to find door handles; locate a cup someone has just placed in front of us; connect with someone else for a handshake; retrieve a dropped object. There may be fumbling. There may be moments of awkwardness in which our questing hands are a quarter of an inch away from what we’re seeking—just enough to drive sighted people crazy—though we’ll always figure it out eventually, either on our own or by asking for specific assistance.
And you know what? That’s okay.
The nondisabled person’s obsession with precision can be taxing. If it takes me a second longer to find an object than a sighted person deems reasonable, I can expect to have instructions lobbed at me in a frantic voice. I can also expect an exasperated sigh, or a pitying tongue-cluck. Often, they say something like “I hate watching you looking for stuff! It just kills me. It’s right there!”
The situation will usually escalate, and I’ll get grabbed, even and especially by people I don’t know. Crazed as they are by the idea of someone taking seconds longer than normal to accomplish everyday tasks, they are filled with an insatiable need to speed things up.
You may accuse me of hyperbole, and if you’ve never seen this phenomenon in action, I wouldn’t blame you. Do your best to trust me when I assure you that this happens, and it happens all the time.
Just a few weeks ago, I was entering a crowded room. My plan was to emerge slowly and carefully, and search methodically for the empty seat I knew had been saved for me. Before I had time to take one step forward, someone detached herself from the crowd, galloped toward me, grabbed my arm in a disconcertingly tight grip, and proceeded to escort me to my seat as though I were in danger of being trampled by invisible elephants.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped, not sounding particularly sorry at all, “I know you can find it yourself, I just…it’s the mom in me, you know? Can’t help it!”
(What I did not say: “Yeah, but you’re not *my* mom, and when my mom pulls stuff like this, she hears about it.”)
A few days after that, I was approaching a freshly-mopped patch of floor. A woman warned me of the wet-floor sign, which I appreciated, but she was not satisfied with my slow, careful pace. As I prepared to walk past her, she rushed to my side—herself in danger of slipping on the floor about which she was so concerned—wrapped her arm securely around me, and led me across the wet patch with such delicacy, you’d think we were crossing a frozen lake while ice shifted ominously beneath us. I felt like someone’s frail grandmother, (please don’t do this to your grandmothers, guys), and since I was in something of a hurry, I wasn’t pleased.
People have decided, without any input from me, that I cannot be trusted to climb stairs, walk down hallways, find doorways, eat, pull out chairs, cross streets, use escalators, walk down ramps, and get into vehicles safely. (This is not an exhaustive list.) For so many people, I am either seconds away from grievous injury at all times, irritatingly clumsy, or both. There is something in nondisabled people’s minds that can’t handle the idea of taking your time, being methodical, making mistakes you can learn from, doing things your own way. The insistence on everything being as precise as possible dismisses any alternative way of doing a thing if it’s even a beat slower. Each time someone says “Oh forget it! I’ll just do it! It’s faster anyway!” I get a tiny ache in my gut.
The crux of this isn’t so much that I object to people being helpful or overly concerned with my safety. I’m grateful that anyone takes enough notice of me to care whether I break my neck on a wet floor or get trampled by elephants. It’s the irritation that causes me the most pain. The idea that someone’s blood pressure would spike just by watching me put an empty fork in my mouth or backtrack to find a landmark I miss cuts deeply. Am I truly that painful to witness? Is this the root of all that unwanted, unwarranted pity?
Yes, sometimes a sighted person’s methods are quicker. It often happens that I’m happy to surrender a menial task to someone with working eyes because they’ll get it done at least as quickly as I can, and may do it more efficiently, too. That’s a fact of life. I’ve never been the most competent blind person in any room, so I freely acknowledge and accept that in matters of mobility, especially, I’m a little slower than most. My spatial awareness isn’t all that reliable—not a blindness thing, just a Meagan thing—so I’m content to concede that sighted people get around with an accurate grace that’s beyond me, especially because I don’t have a dog’s eyes to help me.
Despite these truths, I’m quite comfortable with this reality; I’m probably too comfortable with it, by some standards. I’m accustomed to being a bit slower, a bit more hesitant, a bit less exact—and after about two decades of it, it’s not a concern for me. I am quick and clever and efficient in the ways that matter to me. I can type like the wind. I can research well and write quickly. I can edit with a thoroughness that is at odds with my turn-around time, which has been praised multiple times for being unusually swift. My public speaking and facilitation skills are rapidly becoming my strongest assets. In these ways—the ways that pay my bills and make me useful to society—I do just fine.
So, really, why should I despair because it took me ten seconds to find a door handle? Is it worth being upset because I walked past the staircase I was looking for and had to double back? Will anyone’s quality of life suffer because I tried and failed to give them a high five?
Nope.
So, nondisabled people, as much as I understand and appreciate your wish to help, please keep calm, and carry on if your help is not required. Please keep your hands off strangers, and even off friends and family members unless they have given permission. Remind yourself, when you feel that urge to “fix” a situation, that precision isn’t everything. Efficiency isn’t everything. Perfection isn’t everything.
Independence, autonomy, agency, respect—these are everything.

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7 thoughts on “A Disabled Person Refused Your Help? Keep Calm And Carry On

  1. I love this post! Thank you! You have a way of writing about really important things with a beautifully dry sense of humor. I haven’t had my cane for very long and have only encountered one overly helpful person, but I can’t deny, it made me feel weird. I am sharing this post with everyone I know!!!!!!

  2. Pingback: A Disabled Person Refused Your Help? Keep Calm And Carry On | albertruel

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