At work during an affinity group meeting, I shared a story from back in college where a close friend offered me assistance. We were in our college café, and I was standing by the counter, squinting up at the menu hanging on the far wall. As someone with low vision, menus posted on walls are normally my unreadable enemy. My friend knew this, and while I stood there, she offered to read the menu to me. I replied that I didn’t need assistance that day as I was wearing my (very large, very magnifying) glasses instead of my less powerful but culturally more accepted contacts. She replied, “Oh, I didn’t even notice.”
I stood there kind of stunned. Having a physical disability means that you pretty much are always “noticed.” I turned to her and in that moment, felt a startling feeling of true acceptance. My friend accepted me no matter what shape my body was in, and I appreciated her for offering assistance as a default, even if it was unnecessary in that moment.
That’s a nice story, but it’s also one that can cause confusion. What came up in another meeting that week was another story from someone who attended a conference. They recounted a talk by a disability justice advocate at the event who said, “Don’t assume what people need. Don’t offer assistance without permission.” When my colleague heard my story, and then reflected on what they heard at the conference, they felt unsure of what to think.
I see where that disability justice advocate is coming from. For instance, it’s wrong to go up to a blind person you don’t know and take their arm to assist without asking. Or to start pushing someone’s wheelchair or mobility aid without their permission. (Touching someone’s mobility device is like touching someone’s body. It’s an extension of their body. It’s also important to not touch people’s support animals.)
These dueling messages can lead to confusion, and can cause a mental “freeze,” which can stand in the way of being an ally to others.
To help break down that freeze, here are some general principles on how to navigate around situations where you think you would like to offer assistance, but are not sure how.
I welcome other recs as well if people want to share their thoughts.
1- The Bus Principle
You’re on a crowded bus. You have a seat. Someone gets on the bus. They are a person who is A) appearing pregnant B) carrying a small child C) using an assistant device like a cane or walker D) carrying heavy grocery bags E) is an elder F) is otherwise appearing like they could appreciate a seat on this crowded bus.
The ally thing to do? If you are in a place (mentally/physically) where you can offer your seat, the ally thing to do is to offer the seat to them.
What happens next? They may take the seat. They may refuse. They may give you a perplexed look. They may avoid looking at you. They may thank you. They may skirt away from you. Whatever the response is, it’s acceptable to offer your seat to someone else.
Offering assistance in general is similar to this crowded bus scenario.
- Look for signs that assistance might be welcome.
- Offer assistance.
- Accept the response that you get (negative or positive.)
Second analogy: Looking lost
Sometimes you’ll see someone looking at a map, appearing lost. It’s acceptable to say, “Hi. I’m familiar with the area. Would you like any assistance with finding something?”
If they say yes, it’s okay to offer assistance. If they say, “No, I’m good.” Then feel free to politely say, “Cool” and walk on your way.
Consent and Allyship
Both scenarios, bus and map, are about consent. That’s a crucial part of allyship when it involves helping someone directly. Does the person who you are asking want your help? Sometimes you won’t know that unless you ask.
Even in my college story, my friend asked if I wanted assistance first. (It would have been weirder if she just started rattling off the menu to me unprompted.) She asked for consent to help. I said no to the help, and we went on our way.
How full is your gas can?
One thing that affects your ability to be an ally and to receive allyship from others is the state of your own “internal” self. Or to use the Bill O’Brien quote, “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.” Another way to think about it is the spoon theory, but that is a theory/practice reserved for the disability community specifically.
If you have a full gas can- meaning your internal self is feeling pretty good and solid:
- you may offer assistance, and someone refuses or even gets pissed off at you, but because of your current state (full gas can) you are able to not take it personally and move on.
- someone offers unnecessary assistance to you, but your internal gas can is full, so you may be able to offer a light response like, “No worries. I’m good,” and not be leaden down by their unprompted offer.
If your gas can is low– you had a bad day, you’re tired, you’re hungry, 15 people that day offered you unprompted unnecessary assistance and you’re feeling frustrated. Then:
- your response might be different to the 16th person offering unprompted assistance. Your response might be angry, or you might walk away without saying anything
- Or you’re the person on the other side of the action- your offer of assistance to someone is rebuked, and because of your low gas can at that time, you feel even more awful, or feel frustration towards the person you wanted to assist, or feel like you shouldn’t try again in the future.
How we provide and receive allyship can be affected by where we are at that moment. That’s not a bad thing or good thing- it’s just something to try to understand, and because it’s not static, we have to “check-in” on ourselves regularly.
If you’re not up for receiving allyship, that’s cool. If you are feeling unable to provide allyship, that is also a reflection of your current state.
The next step is to just understand why you feel that way, and if your goal is to provide allyship to others, to self-interview about what it would take to help you get there.
What do you think? What has been helpful for you when receiving or giving allyship to others? Or are there helpful practices that you have experienced when asking for consent to provide allyship?
This post is a reprint of a piece that was originally published on the Fakequity blog on October 3, 2019.