I was leaving our building the other day at Hampton Plaza and encountered a woman in the elevator who decided that I needed help. I’m blind, so, carry a white cane and often folks decide that this must mean, without any particular factual basis, that I need help.
First she wanted to make sure I got in the elevator without problems. She ran ahead of me and said, “The elevator is this way.” And, as I approached the door, “It’s right here.”
As the elevator headed down to the first floor I puzzled over what I might do to educate her, or cause her to at least think a bit.
I could, I suppose, invite her up to our offices and give her a thirty minute education on how to recognize when somebody needs help. I could have spent the same thirty minutes with a complex explanation about disability and that it’s insulting to assume that people need help simply because they have a disability.
Taking a shorter tack, I could say, “You know mam, I’m blind, but that doesn’t mean I need help and you shouldn’t assume that it does.”
Experience has taught me however that the result is hurt feelings, “Well, all I was doing was trying to help. He’s really got a chip on his shoulder.”
So, the elevator headed down and I pondered. Finally I decided to try for a reversal of positions.
When we got out of the elevator she said, “Where are you going? Let me help you find the door.”
I actually looked away from her during these comments, acting like I didn’t hear her. Then I turned toward her and said, raising my hand as though to put it on her shoulder in a kindly way, but not actually coming anywhere near her or her shoulder, “Ma’am, can I help you find something in our building.”
She stopped in her tracks and one could feel her wheels turning. She became speechless. Finally natural politeness took over and she said, “No thanks. I‘m fine.”
I smiled and wished her a good day, walking ahead of her and out the door.
The point of this story is to say, next time you’re in a situation where somebody makes the assumption that the “dis” in the word disability is what defines you, you won’t have time for a training session on disability etiquette, so, try the reversal technique. We’ll have more of these in future blogs.
Oh, and, if you aren’t a person with a disability, please understand that we aren’t putting down your efforts to help us, but, most of the time, let us ask first.
Michael Bullis is the Executive Director of The IMAGE Center.