The Right to Refuse Help

At least once per outing, I am offered help I do not need. People ask if I’m okay while I’m sitting on a bench listening to music waiting for a friend. Bus driver’s ask me if I know which bus I’m on. Total strangers will verbally tell me when it’s safe to cross the street. I don’t mind this extra information or the fact that people check in on me more than is strictly necessary. I think it’s a good quality to have in a society. I do mind, however, when they refuse to leave me alone after I have already said I do not need their help. When the stranger insists on waiting with me until my friend comes. When the random grabs my arm and attempts to drag me into the crosswalk because I waited a split second longer to read the traffic for myself. These things, I do mind. When blind friends more outgoing than I assert their boundaries and refuse to accept this so-called help, then get labeled an ungrateful bitch or a bitter blindy simply for speaking up for themselves, that, I mind.

Too often, when blindies are offered help, the person offering won’t take no for an answer if their help is declined. Notions of superiority and ableism delude them into believing that the blindy cannot possibly know what they’re doing, where they’re going, or accomplish anything without immediate sighted assistance. The so-called helper feels entitled to touch, grab, pull, and/or speak for the blindy. This behavior is usually triggered by one of two reasons. Some people feel unsettled that individuals without sight are competent. Perhaps this stems from a fear of losing their own vision. It is fueled by the inaccurate view that blindies are somehow less than, or pitiable by, the sighted world. These people feel the need to interfere because the idea that blind people are able to function capably in society unnerves them. Other so-called helpers may be motivated by a misplaced, and no less condescending, do-good attitude. These people are generally warm souls who feel amazing after coming to the rescue and doing good deeds. The trouble is, while they are busy swooping in to save us, they treat us like we’re about four years old. Checking to see if someone needs help is thoughtful and considerate, but pushy interference is no longer help, it’s a hindrance.

I’m not saying offering help to a blind person is a bad thing. Often, the offer is appreciated. But don’t be insulted or angry if we decline your help. Sometimes we do things a little differently, but what might seem awkward or cumbersome to you is simply just our way of functioning without sight. We might wait an extra cycle at a crosswalk to ensure it’s safe. This does not necessarily mean we are lost or worried about crossing the street. We might pause an extra second or two before boarding a bus to ensure it is the correct one. This does not necessarily mean we need help boarding. If we tell you we know where we’re going, don’t stand there staring after us like you’re not sure that’s true. It’s super rude and condescending, and though we can’t see you, we are well-aware you do it. If we say we can cross the street on our own, don’t grab us anyway and drag us forward. It’s disorientating and unsafe, and it looks like you’re staging a kidnapping. If you’re surprised by our ability to do something without your help, don’t ask us rapid fire questions while we accomplish the impossible in your eyes. If you’re so impressed by our ability to do ordinary tasks, don’t force us to divide our attention between you and whatever we’re doing. I’m not kidding when I say “The hardest thing about #BlindTravel is not getting where I’m going, it’s the people I encounter along the way.”

The following is a classic blind outing encounter. Some random offers help, we politely decline. The random insists, we decline again. The random struggles to “help” and interferes with our differently-abled system and ends up messing it up. Random walks away convinced we needed their help after all, when all we needed was for them to believe we know what we were doing.

The moral of the story? If you want to offer help to a blind person, go for it! But if they decline your assistance, be okay with it and let them live their lives. We have the right to refuse help. We have the right to decide what is and is not helpful to us. And we most certainly have the right to choose who is allowed to touch our bodies. We’re not trying to be rude or proud when we say: “thank you so much for the offer, but I’m fine.”

Be kind, and be aware.

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