The Complexities of Giving: People with Disabilities as Help Objects

A photo of Rachel Cohen RottenbergBy Guest Blogger Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, Blogger, Disability and Representation

For most of my life, I’ve favored standing rather than sitting and, despite the fact that I now use a cane, I still prefer being on my feet. This preference seems counter-intuitive to people who see disability as an all-or-nothing proposition, but standing, moving and walking are what my body craves.

Before I used a cane, no one remarked on these preferences. In the past couple of months though, the visible marker of disability has made them open to question.

A few weeks ago, I was standing at the bus stop, holding my cane with my backpack at my feet. Next to me was a bench occupied by two people. A young man was stretching out his legs at the far end, and an older woman was sitting up straight at the near end, holding onto her cart of groceries. There was enough space between them for at least two people.

After I’d been standing by the bench for a minute or so, the woman looked up at me and said, “Would you like to sit down?”

I looked over at her, smiled and said, “No, that’s all right. I’d rather stand.”

She seemed disappointed – and even a little disapproving.

I was very troubled by this interaction. It was so brief, so apparently simple – and yet, I was registering a huge amount of discomfort. So I set about looking at why that discomfort was there.

Because I like to feel that people have good reasons for what they say, the first thing that bothered me was that her offer made little sense. If there had been no room on the bench and the woman had offered her seat (or had asked someone else to get up), I would not have felt uncomfortable about it. If you see a person with a cane and all the available seats are taken, it’s considerate to ask whether the person needs to sit down. I would have done the same if the roles had been reversed.

But there was already room on the bench. I could quite clearly see the empty space, and if I’d wanted to sit down, I would have. I wasn’t waiting for an invitation or for permission. If I hadn’t been holding a cane, the woman’s assumption would have been that I wanted to stand. After all, others were standing by the bench, and she had not asked them whether they needed to sit down.

The presence of the cane made all the difference. Suddenly, I became what civic activist and independent scholar Jesse the K refers to as a help object. Simply put, as a person with disabilities, I became the opportunity for someone else to extend his or her generosity, and my own boundaries and internal process meant very little.

I always feel very conflicted about moments in which people offer me unneeded assistance. I appreciate any attempt at kindness, and I empathize with the impulse to help. I am one of those people whose default approach to nearly everything is, “How can I help you?” and the desire to help runs very deep in me. We live in a harsh and competitive culture, and many people have a deep hunger to do a kindness, to extend themselves to connect with others from a place of giving.

So I understand the goodness of the intention, but I also understand the ways in which it can become patronizing and intrusive. In this case, whatever good intentions were involved, those intentions flipped very quickly from an offer of kindness to a way for the other person to feel good about helping me,  with the result that she became unhappy when I refused her assistance.

As a help object, I was not treated with the presumption that I knew what I needed and was acting on it. As a help object, I wasn’t a person with an internal experience in which standing was a good thing. As a help object, I was expected to accede to the other person’s offer so that she would not feel disappointed.  Rejecting that offer was akin to breaking the rules of an implied contract I had never signed.

There is nothing wrong with feel-good moments, mind you. But they can’t come at the expense of treating people as though they are incapable of deciding between options like standing or sitting. Put another way, feeling good about ourselves can’t become central to the interaction. Helping someone shouldn’t put the giver at the center.

So how does one avoid the pitfalls of overzealous giving?

First, I think it’s very important to look carefully at the situation to see whether the other person actually needs help. If the person has a mobility issue and there are no seats, offering to get up is considerate. But if the person has the option to sit and has decided to stand, step back. If the person isn’t asking for help, step back. If the person is just minding his or her own business, step back.

Second, respond graciously to a rejection of help. This is crucial. If people don’t respond graciously, they’ve set the other person up as a help object who exists only to make them feel good. That is not why other people exist. Are there opportunities for service? Undoubtedly. But people with disabilities, simply by virtue of our disabilities, are not automatically such opportunities.

Third, consider the impact on the other person. One of the great ironies of becoming a help object is the feeling that, suddenly, I am supposed to receive help, but not give it. For someone like me, who has a fierce desire to help, that expectation is the social equivalent of tying my hands behind my back. I can hardly describe the feelings of grief and pain that position engenders.

People with disabilities, like anyone else, need the dignity of giving in addition to the dignity of receiving it. Everyone can serve in his or her own way, according to his or her own abilities. Just as no one should always be a giver, no one should always be a receiver.

So please, if you see me with my cane, just strike up a conversation about anything you like – the weather, the bus schedule, my bright red Converse high-tops. But don’t assume that I need your help. If I do, I will certainly ask.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg is a writer, photographer and activist passionate about disability rights. Rachel holds a Master’s degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley, where she taught freshman composition and sophomore literature as a graduate student instructor for three years. After graduate school, Rachel began a 15-year career as a technical writer in the networking and telecommunications fields for companies such as Novell and Lucent Technologies. She is currently pursuing her second Master’s degree (this time in history and culture) at Union Institute and University. Her field of concentration is Disability Studies.

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