There are a few phrases I hear on the regular that most people don’t — “Hey, speed racer!” “Oh, I’m so sorry.” “You’re inspirational.” “So, can you …?” The list goes on. But the one that peeves me the most is this: “Do you need help?” People ask me when I’m minding my own business at a café, when I’m doing some activity but obviously not struggling, and even when I’m heading into the bathroom. (I always wonder what kind of help people think I’d need in the bathroom that they, a total stranger, could give — but just that they ask is testament that asking is a knee-jerk reaction).
Now, I know asking if I need help comes from good intentions, but it also comes from bad assumptions.
At its core, the main assumption is that because I’m not completely able-bodied, I can’t do things in a complete way. So me doing things solo is some aberration that might need fixing. Even worse, it’s inherently a struggle on my part, and the stranger sees themself as a generous soul by offering a hand. They’re also assuming I might not know that I need help, that I don’t know it could be much easier if I asked for it, or maybe I’m too shy or embarrassed to ask. It’s more than a bit paternalistic already, and when you dig into the assumptions behind it, it’s that much worse.
I could rant about this for a while. But that wouldn’t be too productive, would it? So instead, let’s brainstorm. How exactly can we respond to something like this? The way I see it, there are a few different options, each with their benefits and trade-offs. So check them out and mull them over:
- Quiet and polite. A simple “no, thanks” usually ends the conversation and lets you go about your day. On the one hand, this keeps things peaceful and doesn’t require you to explain the situation to a total stranger. On the other hand, the questioner will still think it was totally OK to ask, and probably go on doing it in the future.
- A little sarcastic. A few responses come to mind: “I don’t know, do you need help with anything?” “Yeah, could you help me mind my own business?” And as for that guy offering help in the café bathroom, “need help with what, man?” This can make people feel awkward, for sure, but by searching for an answer they’ll realize how silly it was for them to ask — and hopefully how broken their assumptions are. Of course, you have to deliver it softly to not have them wonder whether all folks in chairs are somehow bitter, but if done right it can change some minds.
- Calm and educational. This one is cool and collected, and would probably be recommended by some Buddhist monks or Berkeley hippies. It’s where you channel your inner disability studies professor and explain your situation and the broken assumptions. The goal is that people will come out enlightened, sincerely apologize, and actually have all the info they need to digest the problem. It can be really worthwhile — but it takes some patience to run through the whole thing, and self-control to be calm every time. Those last two are actually big things to consider: if you’re going about your busy day and just don’t have the time, just dealt with the same situation 10 minutes earlier and are already peeved, or just don’t feel like being an educator, this can truly take some work.
In my opinion, none of these are totally horrible — although the sarcastic one is probably not the healthiest communication strategy — and each has its pluses and minuses. But if somebody asks you if you need help, consider what kind of response you’re feeling like, and what you want to come away with. Do you want to just go about your day? Do you want to challenge the person’s assumptions, and if so, how sharply? Or do you have the patience to have a longer conversation right then? it’s not necessarily the easiest decision, but certainly worth thinking about for the next time someone drops the question.
Alex Ghenis, 27, is a policy specialist for the Berkeley, Calif.-based World Institute on Disability. To learn more about him, be sure to read the August 2015 cover story, “A Day in the Life of Four Wheelers.”