Lately, I’ve noticed an increase in people rushing to my side to help me. Because I’m in a wheelchair, people immediately assume that I am struggling with something but the only thing I’m struggling with is where do people get off on assuming something about a total stranger.
I’ve learned to brush off a lot of things and I can appreciate that people just want to help but it’s important to know when to help. I am strong. I am fit and I am fiercely independent. I am lucky that the only time I need help is when supermarkets stock the goods I need on the highest shelf, not when I’m walking my dog or crossing the road. Today, as my dog was sniffing up a telephone pole and deciding if it was good enough to piss on, a man grabbed my wheelchair from behind and pushed me. I had my headphones in so didn’t hear him and he threw his face towards me, a smile beaming across his face. He startled me. “I don’t need help,” I said. He kept pushing. “I do not need help, thanks.” With that, he let go and crossed the road. For the rest of my walk home, tears stung my eyes and my face heated up.
Yesterday, an elderly woman came up to me and said “Would you not get a motorised wheelchair?” Pointing at my dog, she says “Sure, walking him is great exercise for you, isn’t it?” I told her that I was quite mobile and didn’t need a motorised wheelchair and she told me that her brother who has MS finds his very handy but I should keep smiling anyway because you can’t put a price on a smile. I changed direction and walked an extra 10 minutes home because she would have gone on like that the rest of the way.
That reminded me of a time that a taxi driver said “They love their independence, don’t they?” to my friend as I was getting out of the car. It’s hard to know if ‘they’ meant women or disabled people but he talked above my head like I couldn’t understand or hear him. My friend was so exasperated by the whole thing that I could hear him just “They?! What?!” before I dragged him away, saying that it wasn’t worth it.
My wheelchair is visible and it invites people to look at me and treat me differently. Almost every day, I have to reassure someone through a gritted smile that “I’m perfectly fine, thanks”. I’m not sure if it’s the double whammy of being female and disabled but I have to prove my strength. When I’m lifting my wheelchair into my car, people stop to ask if they can do anything. “I’m grand, thanks. I have a system,” I say and they hang on, as if to doubt me, and then with one arm, I hoist the wheelchair in with one swoop. They love their independence, don’t they?
In the gym, a place where no one should ever make eye contact, stares wash over me. “You’re a great girl, aren’t you?”, one elderly man likes to tell me whenever he sees me, patting me on the back, exactly where my sports bra criss-crosses. When I’m getting my weights, hands dart in front of me “Let me grab that for you”, they say. “Oh, no. I’m grand thanks,” I say, again with my headphones in. And they look on in disbelief as I carry and 6kg, 8kg and 10kg weighs. I check out their weights. 3kg. Maybe they need a hand.
I don’t want to scare people into thinking that they shouldn’t help but you cannot insert yourself into a situation, impose a problem and appoint yourself a hero. Disabled people are not there for your self-congratulatory good deed. Do not swoop in and do not assume. Don’t ‘good girl’ me – not even Drake can get away with that. Just ask. Ask if we want a hand carrying something or ask if we want them to grab the door. And then take our answer at face value. When we say we’re ok, don’t look at us in disbelief like we’re a five-year-old who just offered to cook the Christmas turkey. We’re not astonishing. We’re not inspiring. Also, radio shows, don’t contact me as if this is a topic to debate.
Walking home from town last week, a voice behind me goes: “Where do you live?” Obviously unnerved by this question, he goes again: “Where do you live? I’m walking this way anyway. I can push you.” Imagine you were pushing your child in a buggy or carrying a bag and a stranger elbowed you aside and said “I’m going this way anyway!” How flustered would you be? How aggravated would that make you feel? When you are just going about your daily business and someone imposes a hardship upon you. You feel worthless and small. What part of me or my body language says that I am struggling? I’ve reassessed every situation in my head, to the point of exhaustion, and I need to remind myself that I am fine. I’m fine. Really. No, seriously. I am.