Don’t ask me if I need help. Ask me if I want it.
It’s amazing to me how the subtlest nuances in language can create vast difference in how we perceive the world around us. This is demonstrated well by cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus whose studies have shown that it’s not only possible to elicit a particular answer through leading questions (ie “How fast were the cars going when they smashed?” vs. “How fast were the cars going when they bumped?”), but that our memories of events are altered by the questions such that a week later two people who have been shown the same footage but asked different questions will remember the events of the footage significantly differently.
So why is this important to civil rights movements? Because how we ask a question can define both how we feel about a person and how that person thinks of him- or herself.
It’s only in the last 20 years or so that being disabled has been recognized as being a valid minority group in the United States. More importantly, it has become more widely recognized that people with disabilities are valuable contributing members of society. If anyone reading this has not done so, I highly recommend reading “No Pity” by Joseph Shapiro. It was written right at the beginning of a series of huge advances in the disability rights movement, just four years after the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it takes a hard but (in my experience) accurate look at the additional challenges faced by people with disabilities beyond their actual disability.
It’s hard to believe that in my lifetime there was a point when there were no laws requiring there to be cut corners on sidewalks or accessible seating and ramps on public transportation and in public buildings. Even now, 25 years after the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I encounter daily challenges because people have no concept that someone who has become disabled might want to do the same things as before – my friends recently carried my walker down the stairs of a bar because the birthday boy didn’t think to choose an accessible venue. Worse, when dealing with an unpaved street in my neighbourhood (already an accessibility issue) I had to buzz in and then be lead through a massive storage garage to get into the Pittsburgh Department of Public Works. While technically that makes the DPW accessible, it’s more than a bit degrading to have to be brought in the way one would ordinarily bring in a delivery of stationery.
While it has certainly improved in the last twenty years, there is still a stigma attached to being disabled. In previous generations being disabled was essentially a death warrant, or at least a guarantee that one would spend one’s life confined to an institution. People who became disabled would try to conceal their symptoms while family members refused to talk about disabled relatives for fear that neighbours would believe them to be similarly tainted.
Even the words we use to describe people with disabilities serve only to further people’s perceptions the disabled as being almost sub-human. Looking through my thesaurus I find the following synonyms for a number of common terms which ostensibly aren’t meant to be used in this context, but it’s still debasing to be referred to by a term that has these meanings.
Disabled: incapacitated, paralyzed, broken down, wrecked.
Invalid: sick person, patient, shut-in, weak, void, illegitimate, false, baseless.
Handicap: abnormality, defect, shortcoming, burden, liability, dysfunction.
Cripple: paralyze, devastate, make lame, ruin, break.
Sick: unwell, ailing, bilious, weary of, ghoulish, morbid, gruesome.
So what is my point in all of this? I set out to write something about how to offer help to someone who has a disability (or doesn’t! This can work for anyone!), and that’s what I hope I am doing by first putting into context why someone with a disability might be upset or offended by having been offered help, no matter how pure the intentions of the person asking.
Having put up with centuries of maltreatment and decades of assumptions that if one is disabled one is somehow inferior and incapable of taking care of one’s self, along with a history of being denied even the most basic of civil rights, many people who have disabilities resent the possibility that someone is assuming that they need help. This is why words are so powerful.
There’s two ways of offering assistance to a person:
“Do you need help?”
As someone with mobility issues who’s often obstinately stubborn, my automatic gut response to this question is “No! Of course I don’t need help! I am a fully realized human being and while it’s a little harder for me to do some of the things that you take for granted, I am still a distinct and interesting individual not to be pitied by you!” I’ve never said this out loud, but I find myself answering this question 9 times out of 10 with a polite “I’m fine, thank you.”
“Would you like a hand?”
Sure! Thanks for offering! This subtle change in how a simple question is asked has an incredible difference in what it means. You can ask anybody if they’d like a hand because it’s a nice thing to do, not because you think they need it, and to someone who’s had to deal with the assumptions made about people with disabilities, it is a breath of fresh air to be treated like just an everyday average human being. There’s no feeling in asking if someone would like help that there is some superiority/inferiority dynamic between the asker and the asked.
I cannot speak for all people with disabilities, and I cannot promise that all people offended by certain questions will be polite. To me, at least, that tiny change in wording makes such a difference to my self-identity and feelings of self-worth.
I’m curious as to what other people with disabilities have to say about this issue. Please! I encourage constructive questions and comments.