Forget Sorry: No is the Hardest Word

Saying no is hard. Luckily for those of us who hate to make waves, there are reams of advice out there about saying no on a date, at work, at holiday events, and in tough situations with family and friends.

Creating boundaries is uncomfortable, and enforcing them is worse. Nevertheless, I believe that many of us are getting better at doing both, despite people’s general inability to handle it gracefully.

The one area of my life where I feel that ‘just say no’ is punished more often than rewarded, even by those who profess to respect boundaries, is—you guessed it, clever reader—disability. I know in my heart that it’s better for my health, my safety, and my peace of mind if I say no to all kinds of things: unwanted help, condescending praise, unsolicited charity, events that worsen my chronic pain, exploitive volunteer opportunities, intrusive personal questions, etc. (I could go on for a long time. I’ll spare you.)

And yet in this, the year of our Lord 2019, it is still controversial, inflammatory even, for my disabled friends and me to say no to any of these things. When we do, we have to deal with a whole lot of anger, hurt, wounded pride, and bitterness, plenty of it from people who have power over us, and plenty more of it from fellow disabled people who enjoy sabotaging others’ autonomy almost as much as their own. Because of course.

Let me show you what I mean with a few comparisons. Comparisons are fun!

Saying no to unwanted touch on a rough first date? Scary, but empowering. Saying no to the person physically dragging you along because he thinks you really, really need help walking through that doorway? Ungrateful.

Saying no to the grandparents who want to load your kids with sugar? Awkward, but that’s just responsible parenting. Saying no to the relative who won’t stop feeding your service dog? That’s just a major overreaction.

Saying no to the free sample, the donation box, the religious pamphlet being offered by a stranger on the street corner? Totally your call. Saying no to the gifts, money, prayers, advice, weird coupons and assorted pity offerings from strangers on that same street corner? Totally uncalled for.

Saying no to the private company that wants your free labour in exchange for “exposure?” Gutsy; you deserve to get paid for your hard work. Saying no to the private company that wants your free labour because your identity provides the illusion of “diversity?” A disservice to the disability community; you should be grateful just to be noticed.

It didn’t take long for me to learn, as a multiply-disabled person, that like so many other marginalized groups, ‘no’ is not for disabled people. ‘No’ is not for people who want help in the future. ‘No’ is not for those who need to rely on people who hurt them. ‘No’ is not for the vulnerable. ‘No’ is not for those needing accommodations or assistance or a hand up. There is only ‘yes,’ and ‘thank you,’ and ‘thank you again!’ Anything else risks anger, risks strained relationships, risks exasperating conversations about ‘humouring’ people and ‘making them feel useful’ and not turning boundary violations into a ‘whole big thing.’

Do we routinely take these risks? Most of us do, yep. Is it exhausting, demoralizing and sometimes dangerous? You bet.

I’ve learned to live with almost every ‘no’ being met with questions like, “Why can’t you just keep the peace? Why can’t you just let them help? They’re just curious—why are you being so rude? Why can’t you suck it up? Why can’t you just be nice?”

Because, you know, being nice comes naturally when a stranger has his arm around my waist and is brazenly ignoring my ‘no, my ‘I’ve got this, thanks’, my ‘please let go, my ‘seriously—let go of me immediately.’ Niceness begets niceness, clearly.

So here are my questions, which will look familiar, no doubt:

  • Why can’t the person who is tugging on my arm be nice and keep their hands to themselves?
  • Why is a stranger asking me personal questions about how long I’ve been disabled, and what happened to me, and how on earth I manage? Why can’t they rein in their curiosity and stop being so rude?
  • Why can’t the person whose request for free work I just turned down stop making it into ‘a whole big thing?’
  • Why can’t the person petting, feeding, distracting my friend’s service dog suck it up and follow the rules?
  • Why can’t the person telling me I shouldn’t work, shouldn’t leave the house, shouldn’t participate in public space just keep the peace and leave me alone?
  • Why isn’t no enough?

If you ever find the answers, heaven knows my inbox is open. Until then, I’ll keep saying no, (often politely!), keep setting those boundaries, keep trying to change this toxic double standard we’ve all helped to create by being so doggedly nice, even when someone is harming us – especially when someone is harming us. I hope you’ll do the same.

The Red Robin Effect

Red Robin: a comforting, bustly sort of place where the food and music compete to see who can be the cheesiest. The birthday rituals are silly, the menu puns are cringe-worthy, and the fries require hours of hard work to digest. It’s one of my favourite places, and now that all locations in my area are closing, I think it’s time I wrote about everything it has meant to me.

I moved to the City of Edmonton to attend university at seventeen—a wide-eyed small-town girl with woefully little knowledge of what was about to hit me. Being visibly disabled in a rural setting came with its own challenges, but given enough time and community involvement, virtually everyone felt comfortable with Meagan and her long white stick. I wasn’t always included, but I was, at the very least, known.

Without warning, after seventeen years of solid familiarity, I was in chaos. I didn’t know anyone, and nobody knew me. My blindness fascinated and frightened people. I could no longer walk into a new environment and assume my welcome. Strangers had questions. Acquaintances had more of them. I had never felt so visible and at the same time, invisible. Reduced to a curiosity, I felt unmoored, lonely, and unsure of where I belonged. Everywhere I went, I was an inconvenience, or a safety concern, or another burden busy people didn’t have time for.

Not so with Red Robin.

Given that my residence building was steps from the nearest location, I found myself visiting regularly. At first, it was merely the most logical place to take just about everyone; the food was reasonably tasty and even more reasonably priced. I soon realized I was enjoying far more than the gooey cheese sticks and nostalgic mid-2000’s playlist, however. I was experiencing, for the very first time outside my inner circle, unconditional inclusion I didn’t have to earn.

The staff knew about their own braille menu, (by no means a given), handing it over without batting an eye. Servers nearly always described the location of dishes and drinks when setting them down, as casually as if every single diner needed the same detailed information. Plenty of extra help was offered, but never foisted upon me. When I showed up with visually impaired friends, no one seemed flustered or out of their depth. When paratransit took ages to pick me up, they let me hang out in their comfy seating area without a whisper of annoyance. Not once in seven years of frequent visits did I feel like anything less than a valued customer—a customer worthy of the same professionalism everyone else received as a matter of course.

It doesn’t sound like much, does it? But several of my friends agree that, whether through diligent training or a generally positive culture, Red Robin has cultivated broad, environmental inclusion of their blind customers on a grand scale few other businesses have managed. For me and for many, they have danced delicately along that razor-thin line between help and hindrance; attentiveness and intrusiveness; kindness and condescension. And they have done so in a way that will always set them apart.

My husband and I enjoyed one final dinner at Red Robin, waxing nostalgic and eating far too much. We reminisced not only about our first date there, or the many happy evenings I’d whiled away as a student, but also of the effortless way I’d fit in. Red Robin had taken on an almost mythical greatness in my mind. It had become a safe haven where I could just about guarantee I wouldn’t be spoken to like a child. They’d never have a menu I couldn’t read independently. The servers wouldn’t talk to my tablemates to find out what I’d like to order. No one was about to grab me without asking, tell me a menu item I’d chosen was “too hands-on” for a blind person to manage, or refuse to help me operate the debit machine (the idea that blind people can and do pay for their own meals is too much for some, sadly). In short, I could walk into any Red Robin, any time, and expect to be treated with dignity.

I no longer have a starving student’s appetite, nor am I able to gobble fish and chips the way I once did—at least, not without plenty of protests from a stomach that has been spoiled by a healthy diet. I won’t miss the bottomless fries or the syrupy cocktails. But I will miss the incredible luxury of knowing that I can come through that door with my long white stick, and sit down to a peaceful dinner like everyone else. I’ll forever be grateful to all the folks at Red Robin for giving me the gift of forgetting, if only for half an hour, that life isn’t always this simple.