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Please Respect Wheelchair Users Who Say 'No' When You Offer to Help

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A decade ago, I was lying in the ICU, having just come out of a coma. I was paralyzed, unable to speak, and barely able to see. My feet were permanently pointer-flexed, my hand was unusable, and my shoulders were contractured. I wore diapers over a catheter, was attached to noisy machines by dozens of wires, and had tubes delivering various liquids to and from my body.

Today, I am able to walk again and use an electric wheelchair to get around outside my home. I have limited mobility, and require some daily help, but I have independence and complete autonomy over my life. I am able to do some of the things I used to love, and have found new passions. But all this didn’t happen overnight or naturally. It took a great deal of rehabilitation, persistence, pain-management, surgeries and procedures. I worked hard to get where I am, continue work every day, and I’m proud of my progress. So please don’t shame me if I refuse your offer of help.

Imagine practicing a skill for years, a skill that comes quite naturally to so many other people, but was impossible for you. Now imagine that when you have the opportunity to use that skill, someone comes along and, assuming you are unable, offers to do it for you. Then imagine that, after you reply “Of course not. Don’t be silly!” or even a polite “No, thank you,” they get angry, hurt or offended, and say something harsh, even mean. How do you feel?

I’m not a particularly grumpy, defensive or stubborn person. I truly appreciate help when I need it, and I’m grateful there are so many kind people in the world. I’m not going to bite your head off for offering me unsolicited help, but I am a perfectly capable human being who has worked hard to be able to enjoy a level of independence most average people have without effort. I’d prefer that you assume I am able, rather than unable, to reach that can of beans on the shelf, push the elevator button, navigate a busy department store, cross the intersection etc. However, if you decide to offer help because you see me struggling or you think I’m in danger, please be prepared for a “No.”

Just because I’m struggling doesn’t mean I need or want help. Some things are a struggle for me, but the pride of accomplishing them is what’s meaningful. It is through struggling, trying again and again, that I’m able to go out and live my life without bringing a caregiver with me. It is through trial and error that I have learned to adapt and find what works for me. It is through refusing to ask for help, determined to find a way, that I have learned resilience and persistence is key to accomplishing more. The way I retrieve that can of beans may look painful and awkward to you, but it’s perfectly normal to me, and well worth the effort.

I’m not saying you should never offer help or ignore someone who’s struggling. I’m saying that if your offer is rejected, just let it go, and assume the person is capable of making that decision. When you ask if they are sure about their answer, the message you’re sending is: “I don’t believe you actually know what you want.” When you get angry or offended, the message you’re sending is: “You should be grateful for my offer! What’s wrong with you?” And when you respond with a defensive or disparaging remark, the message you’re sending is: “I have no respect for you or your right to choose.” No one wants to be bullied or shamed into accepting help they don’t want or need.

Getty image by Apeyron.

Originally published: December 2, 2019
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