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Dave Hingsburger | 12:39 UK time, Thursday, 26 July 2007

I've been in New York City doing training for an organization I know well there. This is my first time in visiting their building in a wheelchair and I didn't quite know how to get around. There are about six stairs up and into the front lobby and no sign of a wheelchair ramp. I got out of the chair, Joe carried it up the stairs and then walked me up one shaky stair at a time. All the while we were watched by the team (the TEAM) at security several feet away. When we approached them we asked if there were an accessible entrance to the building and they told us there was and explained how to get in on a level surface. Why one of the group, the team, couldn't have walked twenty feet an explained it to us before we climbed Mount Kill-a-man-inchairo I don't know.

On our way out I noticed that it was raining, hard. The disabled entrance came by the delivery bays for the building. I asked the guys out having a smoke if I could wait here under cover and have Joe pull the car in to get me. They were very accomodating. I had two ways out, one was to go to the disabled ramp which was a slow and gentle slope to the street where the entrance to the delivery bays were, or I could go down an industrial strength ramp that would go an extra 15 to 20 feet down to the docking bays. I decided, of course, to wait for Joe and then go out the disabled way. No way was I going down that steep, steep ramp.

A big guy, too old to still be working at hard labour like this, approached me and said, "I'll take you down the big ramp."

I looked at him like he was out of his flipping mind. But my voice said, calmly as I've learned these can be dangerous situations. It's about his need to help, it can be edgy denying someone their need. "No, thanks," I said cheerily, "I'll wait for the car and then go out the other way.

He kept coming.

"Really, no, really, it's very nice of you, and I really appreciate it, but I'd like to go out the more level entrance."

He kept coming.

Movie music started playing in my head. I glanced over at the ramp, It was really steep. Not made for wheelcairs, it wasn't even very wide. I glanced back at him and he had a pleasant smile on his face. And ...

He was still coming.

Where was Joe? Where was Joe? Where was Joe?

As he was almost on me, I got a little more assertive. "The ramp is to steep, the drop could kill me, I thank you but I'm going to go out the other way."

"I'm strong, I can get you down." He said not hearing a word I said.

"Yo Bill," Another voice enters the fray, "Leave him alone, we're not supposed to use that ramp."

He looked over at a co-worker, shrugged his shoulders, and gave up pursuit of his dream of helping me.

It shouldn't have taken another voice.

Mine should have been enough.

But it wasn't.

Isn't often.

If I'm going to be pursued my whole live by the pity police, I think I've got to practice more assertion.

Anyone got tips?

• Visit Chewing the Fat


It's the USA - they like suing people there, don't they? So I guess I'd say "my wheelchair is like my legs, and if you manhandle me I'll sue".

Substitute "sue" with "scream" if you prefer!

Tempting, Flash Bristow. But I'm not sure how much it would actually help.

Certain people get into a certain mindset where they are determined to Be Helpful regardless of whether the receipient of the so-called "aid" wants it or not. Part of the problem, as Dave mentions, is that some people put their own need to "Be Helpful" (and to perceive themselves as the kind of person who helps) ahead of the needs of others, including the need to be independent and do certain things WITHOUT help, or the need to receive only certain KINDS of assistance.

I suspect that another part of the problem may be that some people have been raised to believe that when a person says, "No thanks, I'm fine," what they REALLY mean is, "I want help but I'm too polite or proud to say so and really don't want to put you to any trouble, and any rationale I give you for why you shouldn't put yourself to so much trouble is really just a polite excuse to keep you from going to too much nuisance for me." And furthermore, they have been trained to think that the correct response to a polite rebuff of their offer of assistance is to keep insisting on wanting to give help.

The trouble, of course, is that sometimes someone really IS trying to turn down an offer of assistance not just because they're trying to be polite but because they genuinely don't WANT the help that's being offered. Perhaps they simply wish to be in control even if their way of doing things is a little slower or different. Or perhaps the kind of "help" being offered would actually cause more of a nuisance than it is supposedly meant to prevent. Or in cases like the situation Dave describes, some kinds of "help," even if well intentioned, could actually endanger a person's life or safety.

But some people are just utterly incapable of seeing this. So to them, saying "I'll sue you if you try to help me against my will" comes across as an extreme act of rudeness all out of proportion to what was after all (so they persist in believing) just a nice, friendly offer of assistance. They won't understand that it's actually meant as an act of self defense against "assistance" that could potentially injure or kill them. That means they're likely to become extremely offended by a legalistic threat. And if their need to FEEL they are helping people outweighs their impulse to actually BE helpful in ways that others say they desire, then that could lead to a very touchy situation.

Dave, if you ever figure out better assertiveness tips for this type of situation, please let us all know. As a Deaf person, I don't seem to be subject to quite the same kinds of dangerous "assistance" that gets pressed on wheelchair users all the time, but I've been there, both as the receipient (never in a way that has endangered me, but annoying oh yes) and as a witness. So I've seen first hand the dangerous stunts that some "I Am Determined To Help You Against Your Will" people participate in even after being angrily told (by me) that they are actually creating, not reducing risk. Unfortunately, some people really are not only stupid but also unwilling to be educated, whether politely or rudely.

Sorry. Wish I had something more constructive to offer. The only thing I can think of is, short of threats of law suits etc., maybe going one level up from the "Very Polite But Firm Rejection of help" to an even more firm, clear, amplified rejection: "I understand you just want to help but I am concerned that this would be extremely dangerous and must insist that you please allow me to decide for myself how I want to get down. Joe is coming in just a few minutes. I am really more comfortable waiting for him." Or another step beyond that, "I do not appreciate your trying to force me to accept help that I have already told you I don't want. It's great that you want to help, but I must ask you to please understand that I have a right to not only get down but get down safely. In my judgment, this just isn't safe. You obviously disagree. But I think I have a right to insist that you simply respect my judgment and leave me alone."

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