I’m probably preaching to the choir with this post, and if I’m not, it’s even more important that you read it. I’ve seen enough of this attitude lately that it’s time that I tackle this head-on. People with disabilities are not here on earth to be your good deed of the day, to inspire you just for getting out of bed in the morning, to have our privacy violated on social media, to answer all of your personal questions, to allow you to pet our service dogs… either without being asked at all or having our “no, thank you” or “please don’t” be completely disregarded in the name of accepting generosity and not hurting anyone’s feelings. And lest anyone think that I’m being too harsh, it’s not my intent in any shape or form. But I’ve come across a large number of articles over the past couple of weeks that have addressed aspects of this on a smaller scale… so it’s obviously not just me.
It started with this article. While I do take exception to the author’s tone (which I did find incredibly angry), if you read beyond it he has a lot to say about personal space and the right to say no. For some reason I have never understood, I have found that many people with disabilities seem to be commodities for public consumption. We’re out in public, so someone grabs our arm to guide us somewhere with no idea where we’re going, even if there is no reasonable inference that we require their assistance other than the fact that we’re blind and it must be so! In recent conversations with people who use wheelchairs, more than once someone has grabbed the back of their chair and propelled them into position at a grocery line or to a table at a restaurant, even if they declined the offer of assistance or were never asked at all. And I’m pretty sure I’m just scratching the surface of variables of disability, public reactions, and responding to unnecessary “generosity”.
It is possible to decline offers of assistance graciously when they are unnecessary, even if we believe that they are so outlandish as to be demeaning. A “no, thank you” can generally go a long way. But what if it doesn’t? Is it my responsibility to graciously receive assistance I don’t require if it’s being forced on me? Am I supposed to answer all intrusive and personal questions because someone dares to talk to me in public and wishes to learn the ins and outs of my disability? The answer to these questions is generally no, unless of course I truly wish to do so. I’d like to think I have a pretty good read on people, and a pretty good system of dealing with the genuinely curious, the downright nosy, and the grabbers. But that’s hardly the point; when I say “no, thank you”, I expect that to be honored just as it would be – or should be – from any able-bodied person.
But when people take pictures without consent – or, worse, post them on the Internet, I shouldn’t have to be gracious about that. Above, I linked to Carly’s post on the topic, and she can address the social media aspect better than I could. But on a personal note, this disturbs me and angers me, largely because many blind people can’t see it happening, and even those that can may be unable to address the “photographer” directly. Last year a friend and I were on a train with our guide dogs, and someone across the way from us was taking a picture. We couldn’t tell for sure if it was of us and our guides, but it was in our general direction, and we didn’t overhear anything at all related to asking or indicating a picture was being taken. So we started talking really loudly about how rude it was that photos were being taken on the Subway, etc. We didn’t get any reaction from across the aisle, but I hope our point was made.
This all being said, it is so important for all of us – those with disabilities and those without – to be respectful if at all possible. Please don’t let this post put off anyone from asking if we require assistance, but simply to ask rather than assume. If we say yes, please don’t rub our faces in it about how great it makes you feel that you’re helping us; if we say no thanks, please honor that. For my blind/visually impaired readers – as much for myself – even if assistance is offered and not required, please take a deep breath and thank the person for the thought; I have found myself getting defensive sometimes when the sixth person in a day asks if I need help – they don’t know all that’s gone before. For my sighted readers, please tread carefully when asking personal questions about someone’s disability (the cause, the level of hearing/vision/mobility they have); the phrase “If you don’t mind my asking” goes a long way. To readers with disabilities, there’s no shame in politely stating that those questions are personal and you don’t wish to discuss them, but what about sports/music/movies? People question what they don’t know, so to them the questions are natural even if to you and me they are intrusive; they may think they have the right to ask them, but we have the right to keep whatever information about ourselves private.
Above all, please please please keep your hands and your camera to yourself. Many of us blind folks do know where we’re going and are using that post/garbage can/wall/doorway to navigate and orient ourselves; grabbing us away from such things may actually get us more lost than simply telling us “Just so you know there’s a wall ten feet in front of you.” Unless we are in immediate danger of getting hit by a car or falling down a flight of stairs, there’s no urgent need to reach out and grab us without warning. And we’re not zoo exhibits to show your friends on Facebook pictures of that “amazing blind girl at the mall yesterday, like, out in public and everything!” Trust me, my guide dog LOVES pictures. If you ask nicely, I might even let you pet her before your photo shoot…