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.

2 thoughts on “Forget Sorry: No is the Hardest Word

  1. Pingback: If All you Have is “Good Intentions”, Keep them | Life Unscripted

  2. I read this post with interest and I already sent a dm to you as to where this was coming from whether that’s just my thoughts alone or that’s true? I have always said and have always been told that sometimes people are too polite to say no so as not to hurt one’s feelings. In my opinion we tend to say sorry more than we say no or saying no and saying sorry seem to be in the same area as not often said but that’s on personal opinion. am I making sense or have I completely lost you? I’ll give you an example here. Getting to know what somebody looks like by touch for instance. Note I’m not saying this should happen but it’s food for thought as to how to look at the perspective and to get my thoughts on it. For me it’s seen as a bit of a habbit although I don’t do this anymore as I’ve been told it’s not so bad if you’re a child but if you’re an adult it’s a different story. The answer might be “yes go for it” but sometimes I’m one who will try to read between the lines because even if they say yes my reasoning is that they might be saying yes despite how they really feel as they feel that to say no will end in disappointment so I question everything. Another example here is one I’ve talked about many times and it’s a topic that blindbeader wrote about back in 2015 entitled I will never ask to hold your baby and my thoughts then were that I’d at the time had my hair cut and one of the staff there was pregnant. I’d considered asking to have a feel of her baby bump based on the long association with this young lady’s mother as she had cut my hair for at least the past 10 years or more. Said lady had said “have a feel” though I didn’t. I decided I didn’t want to go for that as often times it’s by invitation only a lot of the time and it depends on mutual trust and how well you know the person and for how long. Well, that’s always been my view on it anyway although this doesn’t always work now as each person is different and it’s an awkward subject to even bring up. I think the main part of this that I identified earlier is that some people they don’t want to say no for fear of hurting one’s feelings. People not liking saying no has consequences from a business point of view but it applies anywhere we never like to disappoint others but in life I guess we are going to have to say no as much as we hate to have to say it.

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