Being physically disabled has many challenges, not least among them is overcoming people’s preconceived notions of who I am and what I can do.
I have to say “no thanks, I’m fine” often in my day-to-day life, as strangers will ask if they can assist me with (usually basic) physical tasks. Don’t get me wrong — it’s nice of them to offer. More often than not, such offers come from a place of kindness and charity and are well-meaning.
It happens a lot in the supermarket. Fellow shoppers might ask if I need help to carry my basket or offer to help me put my bags into my car, or take my trolley back for me. Most of the time I smile and say “no thanks, I’m fine” because I am fine. Whatever menial task I’m doing in something I’ve done thousands of times before — but the stranger asking if I need help doesn’t know that, and that’s OK.
The problem, though, is that there are other offers of help. Loud public offers. Offers with an audience. Offers that scream “look at me! I’m helping the less fortunate!” that you just know will be part of the person’s long Facebook status later as they regale a virtual audience with tales of their astonishing selflessness.
I found myself in such a situation in the supermarket recently. It was busy. I was masked and social distancing as best I could. In a tightly packed aisle grabbing food for my daughter, I found myself stuck — in front was a large pallet and an employee re-stacking some shelves. To my right, a slow-moving elderly lady meant I couldn’t simply swing out and walk past the pallet. I had to wait. And I didn’t mind. I was not in an enormous rush and the old lady would move on, eventually.
So I waited. Then, a middle-aged blonde woman coming the other way spotted me. We’ll call her Karen because…well, you know.
Noticing my (very minor) predicament, she asks, “do you need to come through?”
“Yes,” I say, “but I’m fine, there’s no rush.”
“Can you move so this man can get past?” she huffed at the employee, who either did not hear her or was ignoring her. I’m sure it was the former.
Realising the pallet blocking my way was not moving, and the old lady was taking a very long time to stare at the shelves, I decided to take the easiest route out.
“I’ll just go back to the other way,” I shrugged and pointed back up the aisle in the direction I had come. “No worries.”
I turned my trolley around and ambled off, but not before Karen got her big, Oscar-worthy performance.
“Oh, so you will not help him?” she shouted at the non-plussed shelf-stacking employee.
I turned back around as another employee came down the aisle, while Karen pointed at me and said, “you wouldn’t move to help this man through!”
I smiled (not that it was visible behind my mask) and raised my hands in supplication to the poor employee. “It’s fine,” I said, “I didn’t need you to move.”
“Is everything OK sir?” asked the second employee who had just happened upon this nonsense.
I assured her everything was fine. I was fine. I went off on my way. Who knows what happened to Karen, but I’m willing to bet she is still telling her friends about the time she called out a supermarket for mistreating a disabled man.
The help Karen offered is not the help I want.
I didn’t need help. She asked if I wanted any, and I said I was fine. But she ignored that.
Because it was never about me.
She saw me but didn’t see me as a person. She saw me as an opportunity. An opportunity for her to be a hero. Better still: a hero with witnesses. Maybe she’d get on the local news, or someone would film her saving the day and it would go viral.
Instead, she just made a scene and made herself look foolish. Hopefully, the lesson she will take away is that disabled people are people and not props for some weird hero fantasy. But don’t bet on it.