Backhanded Compliments and the Tyranny of “Nice”

Many children learn early on that their smallest accomplishments are cause for cheers, applause and glowing social media posts. When you’re very young, your every milestone and every “first” are worthy of celebration, and with good reason. There’s nothing wrong with praising a child for walking well or pouring drinks with accuracy. For most people, this trend eases and finally stops, and they start earning praise for more impressive stuff like finishing a degree or landing a great new job. It would be pretty weird to keep cooing and cheering over an adult who can navigate their own home without guidance and pour coffee independently, yes? You’d be mortified if someone seemed surprised that you, a fully-grown adult, were capable of essential daily living tasks, right?

Right?

Sadly, an awful lot of  very well-intentioned people appear to have missed that memo—the one that says admiring someone’s basic skills stops being cute when they’re all grown up, and that disability is no exception to this rule. It is no less embarrassing to hear “Wow! You handled those steps so well!” or “You got your own coffee!” when disability is involved. While some of us do work harder than the average person on cultivating everyday skills—some of us very hard, in fact—drawing attention to our prowess can feelmore patronizing than validating. I don’t speak for everyone, which is the caveat I always mention at this point in a post, but I can say with confidence I do speak for a very large number of us.

Look, I get it: you want to say something nice, make someone smile, acknowledge what you consider to be exceptional talent or strength or perseverance. Maybe you feel inspired by the person you’re complimenting, or perhaps you can’t think of a better way to break the ice. It could be that you’re genuinely curious about how they get things done given the barriers they face, or you’re anticipating they’ll need help later and you want to develop rapport in advance. You’re a nice person, just trying to do a good deed for someone else. I truly do understand.

Keep this in mind, though: a great many times, being kind is preferable to being nice. Emotions tend to run very high in these types of situations, because no one likes discovering their attempt to make someone happy might be backfiring. Nevertheless, I do believe most people want to treat disabled people kindly, and kind people don’t make others feel condescended to or humiliated, even with the best of intentions. Kind people consider context, and compliment accordingly. And kind people don’t let “I was just being nice” outweigh any harm they might cause.

You may be shaking your head, feeling down on yourself because you know you’ve messed up this way. I beg you not to take this personally, however. In my experience, just about everybody makes this mistake at least once. It’s not isolated, and it’s not rare. Even if you actually have a disability, you have probably done this to someone without being aware of it. Proximity to disabled people should never be mistaken for immunity, and I’d be hard pressed to think of someone who hasn’t fallen into this trap. I’ve certainly spent some time there myself, and I ought to have known better.

So, here’s a simple test to help you. Next time you plan to praise a disabled person for a specific skill, ask yourself whether you would feel awkward if that compliment were directed at you. Would it make you uncomfortable if someone patted you on the back for, say, picking out your own outfit? Might it be a little off-putting if someone congratulated you for knowing where the staff kitchen was, six months after you started working in the building?

If you determine that the compliment you want to offer would make you feel pretty good about yourself, go ahead, as long as it’s contextually appropriate. Feel free to tell me if you like my writing skills. Tell my designer friends they have excellent creative instincts. I have no doubt my partially sighted partner would love to hear that you enjoy his cooking. These are all respectful compliments, and there’s no backhanded “You do well … for a disabled person”subtext attached. Further, you avoid giving the impression that people whose disabilities mean they do need help with basic tasks are somehow inferior to people who are able to do those tasks independently. After all, an adult who needs assistance with grooming, for example, is no less worthy for needing that help.

On the other hand, if the compliment you’re considering would feel insulting or at least bizarre if directed at you, that is your cue to pause. Think about whether you might be causing more discomfort than goodwill, and be mindful of who is around. Being complimented on my travel skills when I’m crossing the street is one thing. It’s distracting and unnecessary, but I’ll survive. In a professional setting, however, it’s likely to make other people notice me not for my solid work ethic or valuable skills, but for a disability that does not and should not fully define me.

Don’t be shy about telling people what you admire about them. Nothing in this post is suggesting you have to conduct a full-scale cost-benefit analysis every time you make a positive comment around a disabled person. I’ve received quite a few thoughtful compliments in my life, and while I’m not as graceful about taking them as I’d like, they’re always welcome. I do ask that, in future, you run through that simple test in your mind, and practice being more deliberate about how you dish out praise. Many, many of us will thank you, if only inside our heads.

Oh, and if you simply want to know how something gets done, or how a particular barrier is managed? Google your question, or ask. If we’re not crossing an intersection or trying to do our shopping, most of us are quite happy to answer.

Breaking The Social Media Chain: Stop Pasting, Start Caring

“One like = one prayer!”
“Scroll down and type amen!”
“I know many people don’t give a hoot about…”
“I know 97% of people won’t post this, but my real friends will!”

I think it’s safe to say most of us have seen these copy-and-paste chain statuses. They’re shared by well-meaning people who have fallen for the slacktivism trend—that is, they’ve been tricked into believing a boilerplate Facebook status will inspire positive change. This isn’t to say that the people sharing them don’t care deeply enough, or that they don’t play a significant role in their offline lives, but it’s worth unpacking the reasoning behind these posts to ascertain their usefulness.
Awareness is a great buzzword, and it makes people feel as though they’re accomplishing something just by hitting “post.” While social media can be a powerful tool, this isn’t the best way to use it.
First of all, these statuses employ a confrontational, aggressive tone. Claiming that most people “don’t give a hoot” about serious illnesses and disabilities is unlikely to win people over. Whenever I see this, it irritates me and makes me want to scroll right by. These posts often go on to say that only “real” or “true” friends will repost, as though anyone who doesn’t is an unfeeling, poor excuse for a friend. Each time I see this type of statement, my instinct is to declare that my true, real friends would refrain from posting these at all. If the many snarky parodies all over my news feed are any indication, I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Sharing these posts comes across as inauthentic. It only takes a line or two for me to realize my friend did not, in fact, write it for themselves. It doesn’t sound like them, and doesn’t even seem to fit their personality. Since it doesn’t align with who I know them to be, I’m less willing to spend time reading it. I try to fill my Facebook feed with people who interest me, and while it’s wise and sometimes even necessary to share the words of others, copying and pasting a generic rant about real problems and “true” friends seems out of place and careless. I’m happy to get behind a cause that my friends care deeply about, but in my opinion at least, these posts don’t convey sincerity.
These statuses devalue the power of thoughtful, specific posts intended to raise legitimate awareness. A personalized message from one of my friends is much more likely to influence me than a template some stranger developed—especially when it’s clear the original poster had little grasp of how best to persuade people to listen and act. Sure, the unusual combination of aggression and warm fuzz garners plenty of attention and millions of shares, but does it really result in anything lasting or meaningful? I’m doubtful. (If anyone has any actual data on this, I’d be genuinely interested!)
Last, and perhaps most importantly, these chain messages don’t demonstrate anything other than a person’s ability to copy and paste. It takes almost no effort to do this, and even less thought. It’s so easy to hit a couple of buttons and feel as though you’ve made a real difference in the world, especially when you’re rewarded with likes and shares. In the end, though, all you’re doing is helping a chain letter spread to as many corners of the internet as possible. Maybe sharing does raise genuine awareness and maybe it doesn’t, but it’s not enough to change your status—you need to prove you care, too.
If you want to do some tangible good, reach further than a Facebook post. Seek out friends who are suffering and let them know you’re thinking of them. Instead of “liking” a status in lieu of a prayer, why not go ahead and say an actual prayer? (I don’t know that this does any good, but it’s still preferable to hitting a “like” button and calling it a day.) Donate to charities you believe in; sending money to a trusted organization is a lot more useful than addressing popular causes in vague terms on Facebook. If you don’t have the money to donate, use your social media reach to promote those charities instead, so that others can support them. Speaking from my own experiences, I benefit far more from a phone call, text, or thoughtful blog post than a wordy, spammy Facebook status. I do write a blog, and I do use my modest online presence to raise awareness, but I also do my best to strengthen, encourage, and bolster people as individuals.
My words shouldn’t be interpreted as an attempt to disparage social media or awareness campaigns. I began this blog in an effort to reach as many people as possible, and social media is the chief way in which to do that. I write to inform the public, so likes and shares do make a difference. Sometimes, engaging with your friends, family, and wider network is your only option, especially if you lack money and political clout—and I definitely lack both.
So, it’s not a sin to post these things, though be warned that many of your Facebook friends will find them very annoying. It’s okay to use your social media profile to spread awareness of causes you care about. I urge you to broadcast the voices of those who are experiencing illness and disability. We appreciate when allies signal-boost us, because it might be the only way to be heard.
As you do this, be conscious of the limited good social media can achieve. Never fool yourself into thinking that social media is the best or only way to make an impact. The world needs more than good intentions and viral content. We need comfort, friendship, solidarity and concrete assistance. We need people to write to political representatives; donate to organizations that help us; remind us that we’re not alone; and ask open-ended questions about what we need on an individual basis. Improving our lives is best accomplished by employing us, dismantling societal barriers, and offering us your shoulder when we need it most.
So, share away, by all means. Your social media platform is yours to use as you will; I’d never dispute that. I simply request that you consider the impact of what you post before you post it, and ask yourself whether you could be doing something else—something more productive.
Scroll less, pray more.
Paste less, write more.
Share less, give more.
Most of all, be there for the people who need you. Your little area of the world is where you can do your best work.

“But…I Meant Well…”

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.