The world is filled with helpful people, and as a disabled person, I encounter many of them. There are plenty of apathetic people to whom I’m mostly invisible, but more often than not, I meet genuinely kind people who want to make my life easier.
The downside of this desire to be helpful is that not everyone knows how to go about it. All the good intentions in the world won’t make up for assistance that puts us in danger or hinders our progress. It may sound ungrateful to dictate how people should help us, but a guide to offering unsolicited assistance is past due. It’s all very well for us to rant about the inadequate and unwanted assistance we receive, but if we don’t advise people on the best way to aid us, we’ll never get anywhere.
Now, this is your regular reminder that I do not speak for all disabled people. I don’t even speak for all blind people. While I listen to the complaints, recommendations, and experiences of other blind people attentively, I don’t pretend to be an expert in all situations. The best I can do is cover the basics. So, here goes.
Ask First, always.
The issue I run into more than any other is people’s assumption that we live in a constant state of helplessness. They compensate for this by shouting instructions, touching us suddenly and without permission, or insisting that we must be lost, even when we reassure them that we’re doing just fine, thanks very much.
I can’t overstate this: asking before offering help is not optional unless—and you must be very sure of this first—we are putting ourselves at risk of serious injury. If we’re heading straight for oncoming traffic or poised to walk off a cliff, I’d say that’s a good time to step in. These exceptions are rare, however.
Asking for permission is the most essential part of being helpful, because you’ll find that most of the time we’re capable, competent travellers who know exactly where we are and where we’re going. Don’t panic if we veer a little while crossing the street, or backtrack when we walk past a landmark. Given time, we can usually straighten ourselves out. Deep concentration is at the root of problem-solving, so distracting us without being sure we are struggling is more of a hindrance than a help. Besides, asking before grabbing or steering someone is a tenet of common courtesy, don’t you think?
No means no.
Unless we are headed for the afore-mentioned life-threatening situations, it’s imperative that you listen to us and respect our wishes. If you offer help and we say we don’t need it, don’t be offended, and definitely don’t push. We’re not turning your offer down out of meanness or spite or ingratitude. We’re turning it down because we don’t need it, and help we don’t need slows us down and gets in our way, especially if you’re not skilled at giving directions or guiding a blind person. Chances are, if we’re saying “Thanks, but no thanks,” we mean it. Please respect that.
It’s worth noting that consent and personal space are concepts most nondisabled people cherish as much as their disabled peers. If you wouldn’t ignore consent when interacting with a nondisabled person, there is no justifiable reason to ignore consent when interacting with a disabled person.
Be open to guidance.
Despite your level of confidence, make sure you’re open to suggestions. If a blind person agrees to let you help them, tread softly until you know what they need from you. For example, if you grab a blind person’s hand, don’t be upset if they immediately break your grip and insist on holding your elbow instead. Holding the elbow of a sighted guide is safer than holding hands, and blind people have to be aware and protective of our personal safety. There are many ways to skin a cat, so to speak, but it’s up to us to tell you which way is best for our unique situations.
Note: just because you’ve used a particular method to guide a blind person in the past does not mean you are automatically entitled to use the same method again. We’re all different, and we have individual preferences and needs.
One memorable day, I was walking down the street with another blind friend. As we approached our destination, a stranger yelled from across the street: “More left! More left!”
We both slowed down, confused, wondering what on earth he meant. How did he know where we were going? What were we supposed to take from “more left?” How much was “more?” Were these vague instructions even safe to follow?
More than anything else, this stranger’s instructions distracted and befuddled us. If left to our own devices, we would have found our way without incident. We understood that he was trying to be nice, but his chosen directions were so ambiguous that they did more harm than good.
When verbally guiding a blind person, use specific language. (If you don’t know left from right, please don’t use them!) Mention landmarks, street names, and other universally-recognizable objects. Attempt to convey distance if possible beyond “a little more,” “over there,” “watch out!” and other nonspecific terms. Most importantly, don’t shout instructions across the street, since you might be wrong about our destination and are likely to throw us off course.
Use sound judgment.
Let’s say a blind person is making their way across a busy intersection. They’re about halfway across, and you think they might need help crossing the street. You roll down your window and call out to them. They startle, seem annoyed, and keep walking without responding to you.
Has this happened to you? If so, don’t’ take it personally.
Travelling while blind requires sustained attention—attention we can’t afford to split between keeping ourselves safe and deciphering sudden shouts from unexpected sources. Most of us use our ears to feel secure when we travel, so it’s best not to add to all the noise pollution we already have to tune out. Attending to more stimuli than necessary is not something we generally find helpful, so if we’re not actively seeking help, leaving us alone is key. More than once, I’ve been jolted out of my “travel zone” by someone offering unsolicited assistance at just the wrong moment. I understand that not everyone is able to judge whether the situation is appropriate, which is, of course, why I’m writing this guide!
Don’t let your feelings run wild.
A few mornings ago, I was striding confidently toward my office when someone shouted “No, Meagan!”
I jumped, badly startled, and said “What?”
“You’re headed for that door over there. That’s not your room.”
“Um…no, I wasn’t headed for the wrong door. I’m not even sure which door you’re referring to. I was headed through these double doors over here.”
“No, you weren’t.”
She stormed off in a huff, no doubt wounded. Rejecting her good deed of the day was enough to cause offence and even, it seemed, resentment. I had managed to anger someone simply by not needing their help.
This person made quite a few mistakes here:
• She shouted at very close range, frightening and distracting me.
• She used ambiguous language I couldn’t parse, as “over there” is not particularly descriptive.
• She assumed she knew my destination, even though there were many places I could have been going to besides my office. (Maybe I was looking for the washroom, or the staff room, or the exit, or any number of places.)
• She did not believe me when I explained that I didn’t need guidance.
• She took it personally when I continued to make my own way.
As is typical of me, I was far too polite to say any of this to her. I really have to work on that. I did not want to cause strife or make a scene, so I just walked away and let her think she was right. That was the worst thing I could have done, I know, though as she’s done this type of thing before, I doubt the message would have penetrated her obstinacy.
There’s something disconcerting about being told you’re wrong on the basis of no evidence at all. To my thinking, it takes an awful lot of confidence and nerve to assert that you know someone better than they know themselves. I’ve never seen a nondisabled person continually gaslighted, to the point where they wonder whether they really are going the wrong way. The attitude of “You’re blind, so I must know better” is disturbing, and I’d like to see it disappear, especially when we blind people internalize it for ourselves.
Let’s recap, shall we?
Try to remember that, while we appreciate help and occasionally need it, there’s a right and wrong way to give it. If we refuse your offer, don’t interpret it as a personal slight. If we explain the best way to help, respect our knowledge and expertise. If we become frustrated when our space is violated, don’t resent us.
Finally, if we tell you that your help was unwanted, don’t accuse us of ingratitude. Disabled people do need help, but only we get to decide what that looks like.