Don’t Just Stand There: On the Disturbing Nature of “Rubbernecking”

This morning, I was reading an article about a legally blind woman who strayed off of a snow-filled sidewalk and into the street, just missing a guard rail that would have kept her on the correct path. She must have slipped and fallen, because she was seen on her hands and knees in the street while cars zoomed by, honking furiously. Evidently, people were taking the time to honk and curse with frustration—not to mention stare at her—but no one seemed to be interested in actually helping her. Finally, a city official noticed her, changed lanes, and offered her his help. I came away with a sour taste in my mouth: I am continually dismayed by people’s ability to gawk openly at someone in distress and fail to help them. Surely if you have time to stare at someone, you have time to help them!

I recognize that if a situation is horrifying or confusing enough, people might not know how to react and will therefore remain frozen with indecision and/or shock. This article, by itself, might be dismissed on the grounds that we weren’t there and we can’t know exactly what people were thinking when they passed this poor woman by. But…

I find it harder and harder to dismiss stories like this, because they crop up often enough to suggest a pattern. As I’ve mentioned before, people are prepared to treat me like a spectacle, but not often willing to actually help me in any way. This proves true for many disabled people of all types; people see us, but they don’t necessarily interact with us the way they would with anyone else. It’s almost like the oft-quoted “it’s like a train wreck…I can’t look away” scenario with a slightly twisted edge. How can otherwise perfectly decent human beings be aware that a person is in need and refuse to lift a finger?

It’s a complicated issue—one which my family and friends have occasionally discussed with me. They claim that, since knowing me, they are far more willing to offer help to disabled strangers, and far less able to stand by and watch those strangers struggle. Indeed, an old acquaintance once told me of a young blind woman struggling to navigate an unfamiliar restaurant. She was having difficulty locating a seat, and was becoming visibly upset. According to this acquaintance of mine, several men in business attire were sitting around watching her, some of them actually daring to laugh a little at her confusion. He was astonished that they’d have the gall to notice her predicament enough to find humour in it, and still refuse to ask her if she needed any help. It reminded him, he said, of cruel children on a playground. Unable to stand by and watch, he rushed over to assist her. He later confessed that knowing and caring about me probably spurred his desire to get involved, and heightened his sense of justice.

The more we see this twisted style of rubbernecking, the more it becomes normalized and, by extension, tolerable. Whether you are disabled or not, you’ve likely been in situations where you could have used some help but were completely ignored by those around you, even though they could all see your plight. I have always asserted that having a disability gifted me with a strong sense of compassion, and I find it heart-rending to bear witness to another’s need without at least considering stepping forward.

Don’t misunderstand me: this does not give a person license to approach any and all disabled people and immediately begin forcefully thrusting help upon them, whether it’s wanted or unwanted. It does mean, though, that we could all be a little better about offering that assistance, and being willing to give it if it’s solicited. This goes for disabled and able alike, by the way. We’re all human, after all, and most of us will require a stranger’s kindness at some point in our lives. That paying it forward thing? Yeah, that’s pretty cool, even if you never get it back.

I understand the helpless, frozen feeling associated with witnessing someone else in danger or need; I’ve even written about a time where I allowed this sensation to paralyze me completely. In my mind, though, there’s a great deal of difference between wanting to help but not being sure how, and sniggering with derision as you gawk away. C’mon, guys; we can do better. I have seen over and over that we are capable of great kindness. Let’s see more of that, okay?