Sunday, May 10, 2009

Asking For Help

I've started writing online, mainly to talk about disability. It's a bit of a minority interest for my real-life conversations, and quite hard to express, so the plan is to enter into dialogue with the other disability blogs out there. I'm also posting to Facebook.

The starting point for this post came from reading two opposite statements. One was offended that people do not offer help in public when it is obviously needed; and then the second was a rule that 'don't help me unless I ask for it'. These are two different perspectives from people in very different situations, and it seems that both are right. The world of disability is a contradictory place - one rule is unlikely to fit all of it, and so much depends on personal biography.

Let me illustrate with a situation fundamental to my own life. I walk limpingly - and everything is fine and dandy provided there aren't any steps. But in lapses of concentration, in being bumped into, in irregularities of pavements, or - as some friends like to suggest - lapses of sobriety, I fall over. On average, this happens a few times a month. And when I'm down, I'm down. It's quite a production for me to get up unassisted, and something I normally only do if I've fallen over at home (steps or beds or sofas are excellent things for me to gain a sufficient height to stand up). My strategy after falling outside of the home is to stay on my knees as I landed and look around for a man - if I can't see one, I wait. Then I look directly at him and say something like 'excuse me, I'm disabled, can you help me?'. Sometimes I choose the euphemistic 'can you give me a hand?' but I feel guilty about how much this understates the case. If they then offer 'a hand' I have to explain they have to use both, grab my armpits and lift me bodily upright.

My strategy has, so far, been a Winner. And globally so - I've tried this on wide-ranging travels, with greatly differing levels of linguistic competence and on the whole it's worked. There have been rejections - the first hurt terribly - and, in foreign parts, confusions about what I needed, but nothing beyond typical linguistic and social misunderstanding between a tourist and locals.

But, as I've said, one needs to get into the details of personal biography to understand these things. When I am on the floor, who am I? Still me, obviously, but people who don't know me can't know what that is. Over recent days I've been thinking about who else is on the pavements of Rio de Janeiro, and how many people I (and many others with me) have refused to help in one way or another. There are people asking for money, or for food, there are people trying to sell things, and there are people not asking anything at all but to whom one might still give something. I'm reluctant to use the word 'beggar' because it seems to make the assumption that the person is doing it full time, and you don't know this from only seeing them once. In the ratio of helpers to non-helpers, these are plenty of people getting a much higher percentage of non-helpers than I do.

It is especially easy for me to get help if someone has seen me fall over, knowing I at least used to be part of the good, upright, people. Even if they haven't I am usually not identified as a beggar or a low-life to be ignored. I am male, white, short, young and (usually) have presentable dress and good hygiene. I ask for help directly and apart from slight panic in my voice, assertively. While in the UK my accent will mark me as quite-educated; outside the UK I'm often in developing countries and will perhaps be given a high status as rich foreigner/gringo. In short, I appear quite a safe choice for someone to do their good deed for the day. It seems to me in appearing temporarily in need of assistance one does a lot better than the people who give the impression of being more permanently in need - another thing that helps me here is my position on the pavement; in the middle rather than on the side with my back against a wall. I do not know what would happen if any of my characteristics were different and how much changes would affect the ratio of helpers to non-helpers.

And notice how sneaky I am! I identify myself as disabled before asking for help, and it's wonderful what this category can do. The examples I have recently are from India and Brazil. In India there is a great deal of pushing and shoving in situations where Englishmen would form a disgruntled queue. On two occasions people were pushing in front of me, in what seemed from the murky depths of my English education, to be obnoxious and self-centred. I fixed them with my eye, and said in my best Bengali 'I'm disabled', and open sesame! they seemed to positively enjoy utterly changing their behaviour and giving me priority. Brazilians require foreigners not on a tourist visa to register themselves in the great mess of brazilian bureaucracy. I turned up mid-afternoon to their federal police, and a petty official was saying - not without a certain pleasure - how I needed to print something out from the internet, go to a bank, and then come back at 7am to get a number for the queue. After he finished I said hopefully 'I'm disabled... is there any other way?' He asked, 'what type of disability?' to which I promptly did my lopsided waddle and lo and behold! our official became a paragon of helpfulness. Of course we could do it that day, he would print things off for me, there were banks very close... and what takes most gringos many hours of their life, and perhaps more than one visit, was done by disabled me in one go and less than two hours. Which brings us to another facilitator: my disability is easily understandable as a mechanical difficulty of weakness/slowness. People with invisible disabilities report other reactions to requests and they meet little despots with little theories about how 'it's all in the mind'...

And what a slippery category disability is! Each person with a disability is affected in different ways, and more of it might be around the next corner for any of us, whatever our current disabilities/non-disabilities. It is a very broad church that I claim a part of. In Banco do Brasil, which many people living in this wonderful tropical country are forced to visit, there is a special queue for disableds, ageds, pregnants, and who knows what else. Yet there are too many people using it (personally, I have nasty suspicions that some of these ageds aren't as aged as all that, and should suffer with the young uns). Which means the queue is not very special any more, and almost as interminable as the one for the non-aged, non-disabled, non-pregnant majority. I just hope that no one goes there who actually does have a problem! They'll have to make a third line for the extremely aged, extremely disabled and extremely pregnant. It all seems a little silly in a country where a nice smile and a request can get you so far... Although, to be fair, Brazilians inside the Banco do Brasil are on average a good deal less friendly and laid back about life's journey than Brazilians outside the bank. And, more importantly, not everyone who needs help has a nice smile or the energy. They might be 'already running on empty from dealing with life'.

In the bank, the institution has made a category of people who should get special treatment. In the world outside of institutions things are not so clearly marked, and crying 'disabled' is not the only way to get help: in Morocco I remember preemptively learning the arabic word for 'problem' and soon after deploying it while pointing vigorously at my leg - someone very cheefully helped me up the steps in question. I shall never know what categories of dependence he put me into that made him so willing. But it is these categories of goodness (and charity? pity?) that I am trying, and am largely successful in, accessing. Not only have I defined myself, but I am trying to bring out a good side in my interlocutors. They can't all be good people: I am sure there is many a man that will be kind to a stranger even though at home he beats his wife.

This is one of the features of dependence: one is dependent on such a wide range of people. Not only those close to you, but also chance acquaintances, officals, strangers, neighbours. Once, in an Hour Of Great Need, someone whom I knew but wasn't the biggest fan of, immediately and unquestioningly gave me a Great Assistance. This was, and remains, a humbling episode. It makes me wary of being on bad terms with anyone: if I do not know when I will need help I do not know from whom I will need it.

Disability becomes one of one's great modes of interaction with the rest of the world, see. It no longer embarrasses me (so much) to need physical help in public, getting up from the floor, or whatever else. Crowds watching hardly bother me. A friend helped me up from some cobbles and said 'don't worry, I don't think anyone saw' - my reaction was to think how far I was from giving a damn. (Although I'm by no means always so steely-hearted; I perhaps feel most acutely when I need help in front of people I've just met, especially of the pretty female kind.)

It's easy when I'm on the floor to say I need help and ask for it, but the rest of one's life poses much greater difficulties. What does one and what does one not attempt in the first place? The uniqueness of one's situation means it's very hard to compare oneself to others as a measure of what is and what is not possible or achievable: there is no class of disableds to come top of. Those close to you are going to have their own ideas about what you can and can't do, and these ideas may be right. But no matter how much one loves you, no one is perfect: their ideas might be very wrong. I've got nothing against pity, and seeing some of my disabled friends' problems breaks my heart. But I'll be damned if I let them know that, because I think it would be an unhelpful attitude for them to have about themselves. Accepting as one's own the expectations others have of you can be imprisoning.

One way of being disabled is a fierce individualism. This is certainly not available (accessible?) to all, and nobody can keep it up permanently or without help. The individualism of disability means creating and choosing for yourself your own definition, the things you will and will not attempt to do or to be, establishing your own possibilities. Demanding to confront the world on your own terms: not to care about the staring crowd, and to be able to have a perception of yourself different from those that other people have of you. It also means making oneself and one's problems a priority - a priority either to the people close to you, the people who pass accidentally through your life, or institutions you deal with. When the other arguments fail, it comes down to yes, I ask because I need it: 'We are talking about me'.

As well as being a response to many other articles I read from BADD - some of which I've sadly been unable to find again and link to - this is also a response to something I wrote as a teenager, optimistically entitled Being Disabled.


Blogger The Goldfish said...

This is a great post and I shall link to it from the main BADD page - I didn't yesterday as I was asleep for most of it.

"I've got nothing against pity, and seeing some of my disabled friends' problems breaks my heart. But I'll be damned if I let them know that, because I think it would be an unhelpful attitude for them to have about themselves."

I think this is an excellent explanation of something that disabled people often come across. It's not really the pity that's the problem, it's what you say and do about it that can offend or demoralise people.

May 18, 2009 2:23 PM  
Blogger driftwood said...

Dear Goldfish,
I started looking for disability blogs on the internet, exactly at the same time you launched this year's BADD, which as you can see was a great inspiration. Thank you! (for both organising BADD, and for your comment...)

May 23, 2009 2:20 PM  

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