I was about to walk down the stairs when the man grasped my arm at the elbow, and asked a second later, “can I help you?” It was late evening, and I had just stepped off the train, having chosen my boarding location strategically to be able to execute a quick U-turn to the stairs upon exiting the train. It wasn’t too crowded, and I was lost in thought. I’m a thirty year-old female commuter, and I take this route every day. So why was this stranger obstructing my path?
There was a long white cane in my right hand. I am totally blind, and My cane is a travel tool, a hollow tapered tube of fiber glass with a small steel disc at the end. I use it to get tactile and auditory feedback about my environment. But in this moment, it became a lightning rod for the social code of help that trips me up far more often than any physical obstacle in my environment ever does.
I’m not a mind reader, but based on the actions of those around me, the social code of help seems to go something like this: “I see a blind person, they must need help. If I help them, I am doing a good thing.” I doubt it’s a coherent stream of thoughts, rather, it’s as deeply engrained as “The light is green, I can cross the street,” because it happens so spontaneously, and so often. Sometimes the help is physical, I am abruptly taken by the arm or shoulder and propelled, in or out of train doors, toward an escalator, across a street. Sometimes it is verbal, “the light is green,” “There’s a seat over there,” “keep going straight.”
“Erin,” you might be asking, “what is your problem with all these helpful people who just want to make sure you are safe?” Let’s deconstruct the social code of help to see why help isn’t always helpful.
First, the code starts with the fact that I’m a blind person. Now I know my blindness is noticeable. I’m using the aforementioned 5 foot long cane, and navigating the world using nonvisual techniques. My phone chatters in a robot voice, I might stop in the entry of the Starbucks to listen for the end of the line, I might be reading the dusty Braille sign on the train platform to confirm that I’m where I want to be. If those details get noticed before my awesome thrift store dress or the fact that I ride your commuter train every day, so be it.
Next, the assumption that because I’m blind, I need help. Here’s where things start to get tangled, because in fact, I don’t always need help. Most often, I definitively do not need help any more than those offering it do. I use my cane to find stairs and obstacles, I use traffic flow to decide when to cross the street. But more important than the hows and whys of my techniques, is the fact that I am a competent adult who assesses risk and asks for assistance when I need it. I was not on the verge of falling down the stairs when the man grabbed my arm. What if every time you left your house, the majority of the interactions you had indicated that people were assuming your incompetence? A stranger flags you down, hops in your car, and starts driving to your destination for you. Are you grateful?
The final part of the code, that help is a good deed, further serves to muddle the interactions. I often find myself trying to reassure the stranger of my competence. “I’ve got it,” “I’m good,” I know where I am.” If there’s physical contact involved, my defensive reaction to being a woman being unexpectedly grabbed is in play. I shouldn’t have to quash these self-protective instincts, but I also don’t want massive jolts of adrenaline multiple times a day. Often, I mix a physically defensive response, an abrupt stop and jerking away of my arm, with a polite verbal response, a smile and a “No thank you.” If my reaction isn’t sufficiently sugar coated, “I was just trying to help,” the stranger will respond, his or her confusion at my violation of the code evident. These moments leave me feeling dishearten, and they probably leave the stranger feeling confused, offended, or disappointed. If I’m not in the mood for conflict, my other choice is to accept the touch of strange hands on my body, just smile and say thanks. When I take this route, I can only describe the after taste as the flavor of eroding dignity.
The code of help is only a small part of a larger social construct about disability. Systemic change is a long and uphill battle. If you’re reading this post, and you are a nondisabled person, I invite you to institute some small changes in your practice of the code of help.
- Assume competence. Always remember that you’re having an interaction with another adult who has been going about their day without your assistance until this moment.
- Ask before you act. If you do feel like help might be warranted, and it may be, because preferences and abilities are as unique as the individuals who have them, start with a verbal offer. A gracious offer gives far more room for a gracious acceptance or decline than forced help does.
- Personal space rules apply. You probably wouldn’t reach out and grab just anyone, so avoid doing so to people with disabilities.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be undertaking a conscious effort to find new and better responses to moments when I find myself tripped up by the code of help. I invite you to share your own experiences in the comments.