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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Unwanted "Help" and the Dangers of Ableism

A few days ago I read a tweet written by Bronwyn Berg that deeply resonated with me and many others with a disability who use a wheelchair. Berg tweeted:

If you see a person in a wheelchair (especially a woman) being pushed by someone and she’s screaming Stop! No! Help! For the love of humanity help her!
A guy grabbed my wheelchair today and just started pushing me, not a single passerby helped even though I was screaming for help.

The sudden unexpected "help" pushing a wheelchair presents the most dangerous social experience I endure on a regular basis. I have never understood this sort of unwanted "help". I cannot imagine the level of arrogance coupled with ignorance required to impose "help". In my estimation imposed "help" is an assertion of social superiority and perceived physical dominance. When a stranger suddenly starts pushing my wheelchair I know the social interaction is going to go badly the second I refuse "help". Unwanted "help" when refused politely or firmly instantly changes the social dynamic. The results are predictable: "help" instantly turns to anger and either verbal or physical assault. The only analogy I can think of is a uniformed police officer who pulls a car over for a routine traffic violation that suddenly and unexpectedly turns from into a life and death struggle with another person. While I have never feared for my life, when unsolicited "help" is imposed I am instantly wary and become acutely aware of my surroundings. I know without a doubt I am on my own--just like Berg experienced. Bystanders are useless. What I look for is an out--my total focus is to get away from the person imposing "help". No matter what transpires when "help" is refused I know danger is at hand. A few example of imposed "help" should suffice:

Washington Dulles airport late at night. I am killing time before my flight and on my way to the bathroom. I have my brief case on my lap as I am heading up a slight incline. Suddenly I feel two hands on my back pushing hard. I almost drop my brief case and fall out of my wheelchair face forward. For balance and to stop, I grab onto one wheel and turn around to face the person imposing "help". The beneficent smile turns to rage when the person can no longer push me forward. Suddenly I am the problem. In this instance I was told to shut up and be grateful for the push. When I refused I was loudly told people like me are bitter and angry. A stand off ensues while others silently look on. No support is offered. The person storms off to accolades from others.

Heading into a store on a strip mall. I have the door half open when suddenly a man reaches over my head while stepping in front of me. Using the door to support my front torso, I almost fall while the man cheerfully says "let me get that door". He is standing in the doorway and I am backing away. When I politely say "I don't need help" his face turns fire engine red and he screams "I hate you bitter cripples. I was trying to be nice but no, you just shit on everything". With his diatribe over he slams the door in my face.

Last fall walking to the light rail station. I am going up a long hill when I hear a car screech to a halt. A woman jumps out of the car into traffic and runs full speed towards me. She is yelling "I will push you! Where is your care taker? You cannot be alone." We enter into a strange dance as she tries to get behind me while telling me "I will push you". After a few minutes she leaves muttering about what an ass hole I am.

Downtown Denver 16th street mall. A homeless man or person with a significant mental illness stalks me for eight blocks. The streets are crowded and there is a police presence. At a red light the person in question sneaks up behind me and starts pushing me into traffic against the light. I grab one wheel and turn to confront him and loudly say no. Heads turn and tow strangers in unison say "give the guy a break, he is only trying to help you". No I reply "he is trying to extort me and asking for $10 to push me". Afraid for my safety, I walk over to nearby cops who tell me to get lost and be kind to others who are helping me.

Getting into my car at a gas station. A stranger runs around my car and pulls the wheelchair away from me. "I will help you. Where are the wheels and how do I put them on". Essentially I enter into a tug of war over my wheelchair frame while being told what an ungrateful jerk I am.

Every wheelchair user I know dreads the sort of imposed "help" described above. This is why Bronwyn Berg's tweet resonated and in a day had 65,000 likes and 20,000 retweets. I tweeted my reply to Berg and the tweet response was picked up by the BBC and CBC news. 



I cannot truly express how demeaning and frightening unwanted "help" is. In disability rights and disability studies scholarship I often hear and read that we should always assume competence. For me it is less about competence than it is about human adaptation at its best. Regardless of the disability, we humans adapt like no other animal. I think adaptation every time I see a blind person teamed with a guide dog. I see adaptation when I see a blind person using a cane. I see adaptation when I observe deaf people conversing via ASL and am jealous of Deaf culture. When I see a quadriplegic moving fast in a power chair I think adaptation. When I see a wheelchair user and a service dog working in unison I think adaptation. Typical bipeds do not see what I do. They usually see nothing more than a physical deficit, an inferior human being in need of help. They see and think tragedy. The fact help is not required never enters the equation. The fact a person with a disability can lead a
rich and full life is dismissed as impossible or inspiring.

Today social media has given people with a disability the means to vent and connect in real time with others. I am sure Berg was gratified to know her experience was far from unique. Like Berg, I have no interest in what others who impose "help" intentions are. As Berg noted in the essays linked above, this misses the point. "The point is never, ever touch a wheelchair without asking". Aside from the risk of injury, the fundamental issue is consent and bodily autonomy. Berg stated "Our assistive devices are a part of our body. We aren't furniture that can be moved around." And that is exactly how we wheelchair users are perceived by others--a piece of furniture that is routinely in the way. The human being using a wheelchair is not respected. Like 
Berg, these incidents are deeply unsettling. In fact a few days after her confrontation Berg tweeted: 

I keep having nightmares that someone is chasing me and I’m wheeling as fast as I can. I keep trying to hide in accessible washrooms, but something prevents me. In one dream the door was too heavy, in another it was occupied by a non-disabled person.

Berg was assaulted at two levels: first, she did not receiving support from others when she yelled out. Second, Berg felt very much alone and invisible. The fact is disability based harassment and disability hate crimes are not taken seriously. There is a cultural fiction that everyone is kind to the handicapped--my brother actually said this to me once. No. Just no. People are not kind to the handicapped. Read any text on the history of disability and you will discover a long legacy of human rights violations that are the stuff of nightmares. Think Willowbrook Institution or the Ugly Laws or forced sterilization or growth attenuation. While the law may be on the side of people with a disability in this country, women with a disability are a minority within a minority and are at a greater risk for violence. Women with a disability for instance are twice as likely than non disabled women to be the victim of a violent crime. Women with a disability are also more likely to be sexually assaulted. No doubt Berg knows this all too well. 

Imposed "help" transcends borders. Imposed "help" takes place in Canada, America, England, and as far as I know most industrialized nation states.  As a wheelchair user, I remain wary of others. When in public I am never truly relaxed. My guard is always up no matter where I am. I am all too well aware I live in a hostile social environment that is not constructed with me in mind. When imposed "help" rears its ugly head I am reminded ableism is rampant and dangerous. If you do not believe me ask Bronwyn Berg. Indeed, she is the expert and I hope she does her level best to undermine imposed "help".