A Disabled Person Refused Your Help? Keep Calm And Carry On

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: one of the inescapable pitfalls of blindness is a lack of precision. Even with the help of a guide dog, no blind person is going to be as precise in their every movement as most sighted people. In familiar surroundings, we can dazzle people with our ability to navigate with grace, but take us outside our elements and we can flounder a little. It will take us a little more time to find door handles; locate a cup someone has just placed in front of us; connect with someone else for a handshake; retrieve a dropped object. There may be fumbling. There may be moments of awkwardness in which our questing hands are a quarter of an inch away from what we’re seeking—just enough to drive sighted people crazy—though we’ll always figure it out eventually, either on our own or by asking for specific assistance.
And you know what? That’s okay.
The nondisabled person’s obsession with precision can be taxing. If it takes me a second longer to find an object than a sighted person deems reasonable, I can expect to have instructions lobbed at me in a frantic voice. I can also expect an exasperated sigh, or a pitying tongue-cluck. Often, they say something like “I hate watching you looking for stuff! It just kills me. It’s right there!”
The situation will usually escalate, and I’ll get grabbed, even and especially by people I don’t know. Crazed as they are by the idea of someone taking seconds longer than normal to accomplish everyday tasks, they are filled with an insatiable need to speed things up.
You may accuse me of hyperbole, and if you’ve never seen this phenomenon in action, I wouldn’t blame you. Do your best to trust me when I assure you that this happens, and it happens all the time.
Just a few weeks ago, I was entering a crowded room. My plan was to emerge slowly and carefully, and search methodically for the empty seat I knew had been saved for me. Before I had time to take one step forward, someone detached herself from the crowd, galloped toward me, grabbed my arm in a disconcertingly tight grip, and proceeded to escort me to my seat as though I were in danger of being trampled by invisible elephants.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped, not sounding particularly sorry at all, “I know you can find it yourself, I just…it’s the mom in me, you know? Can’t help it!”
(What I did not say: “Yeah, but you’re not *my* mom, and when my mom pulls stuff like this, she hears about it.”)
A few days after that, I was approaching a freshly-mopped patch of floor. A woman warned me of the wet-floor sign, which I appreciated, but she was not satisfied with my slow, careful pace. As I prepared to walk past her, she rushed to my side—herself in danger of slipping on the floor about which she was so concerned—wrapped her arm securely around me, and led me across the wet patch with such delicacy, you’d think we were crossing a frozen lake while ice shifted ominously beneath us. I felt like someone’s frail grandmother, (please don’t do this to your grandmothers, guys), and since I was in something of a hurry, I wasn’t pleased.
People have decided, without any input from me, that I cannot be trusted to climb stairs, walk down hallways, find doorways, eat, pull out chairs, cross streets, use escalators, walk down ramps, and get into vehicles safely. (This is not an exhaustive list.) For so many people, I am either seconds away from grievous injury at all times, irritatingly clumsy, or both. There is something in nondisabled people’s minds that can’t handle the idea of taking your time, being methodical, making mistakes you can learn from, doing things your own way. The insistence on everything being as precise as possible dismisses any alternative way of doing a thing if it’s even a beat slower. Each time someone says “Oh forget it! I’ll just do it! It’s faster anyway!” I get a tiny ache in my gut.
The crux of this isn’t so much that I object to people being helpful or overly concerned with my safety. I’m grateful that anyone takes enough notice of me to care whether I break my neck on a wet floor or get trampled by elephants. It’s the irritation that causes me the most pain. The idea that someone’s blood pressure would spike just by watching me put an empty fork in my mouth or backtrack to find a landmark I miss cuts deeply. Am I truly that painful to witness? Is this the root of all that unwanted, unwarranted pity?
Yes, sometimes a sighted person’s methods are quicker. It often happens that I’m happy to surrender a menial task to someone with working eyes because they’ll get it done at least as quickly as I can, and may do it more efficiently, too. That’s a fact of life. I’ve never been the most competent blind person in any room, so I freely acknowledge and accept that in matters of mobility, especially, I’m a little slower than most. My spatial awareness isn’t all that reliable—not a blindness thing, just a Meagan thing—so I’m content to concede that sighted people get around with an accurate grace that’s beyond me, especially because I don’t have a dog’s eyes to help me.
Despite these truths, I’m quite comfortable with this reality; I’m probably too comfortable with it, by some standards. I’m accustomed to being a bit slower, a bit more hesitant, a bit less exact—and after about two decades of it, it’s not a concern for me. I am quick and clever and efficient in the ways that matter to me. I can type like the wind. I can research well and write quickly. I can edit with a thoroughness that is at odds with my turn-around time, which has been praised multiple times for being unusually swift. My public speaking and facilitation skills are rapidly becoming my strongest assets. In these ways—the ways that pay my bills and make me useful to society—I do just fine.
So, really, why should I despair because it took me ten seconds to find a door handle? Is it worth being upset because I walked past the staircase I was looking for and had to double back? Will anyone’s quality of life suffer because I tried and failed to give them a high five?
Nope.
So, nondisabled people, as much as I understand and appreciate your wish to help, please keep calm, and carry on if your help is not required. Please keep your hands off strangers, and even off friends and family members unless they have given permission. Remind yourself, when you feel that urge to “fix” a situation, that precision isn’t everything. Efficiency isn’t everything. Perfection isn’t everything.
Independence, autonomy, agency, respect—these are everything.

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Helping A Blind Person 101: Ask First, And No Means No

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 or presumptuous 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 rants of other blind people quite 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 really 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 walking straight into oncoming traffic or poised to walk off a cliff, I’d say that’s a good time to step in. These exceptions are very rare, however.
Asking for permission is the most essential part of being truly 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 door we’re searching for. 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 simply 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, if you bypass our wishes and grab or touch us without our consent, you’re treading on dangerous ground. It’s never acceptable to violate someone’s personal space, especially when they’ve made it clear that doing so is unwelcome. Here I must return to the rudimentary rules of politeness: no means no.

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, and you grab their 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 another 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.

Be specific.

One memorable day, I was walking along with another blind friend. As we headed for the mall, a stranger yelled from across the street: “More left! More left!”
We both looked around, confused, and wondered 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 made our way to the mall 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, please don’t use them!) Try to 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 decide 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.
Navigating around traffic and other demanding tasks require close attention—attention we can’t afford to split between keeping ourselves safe and conversing with someone else. 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 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 headed for 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.”
“I…definitely was…”
“Whatever, then!”
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 very suddenly, frightening and distracting me.
• She used general language I couldn’t make sense of, as “over there” is not particularly descriptive.
• She assumed she knew where I was going, 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 did not need guidance.
• She took it very 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 absolutely 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 an able 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.

Let’s recap, shall we?


So, 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. We’ve no right to be excessively rude about it, but we do have the right to say no. Disabled people do need help, but only we get to decide what that looks like.