To help or not to help: a tricky question



Travelling on life’s interesting journey while living with blindness, I encounter all kinds of questions – not to mention strange situations. At times I feel as if a book is long overdue to assist friends, family and members of the public when encountering persons with disabilities.

However, that is a topic for another day.

The encounters I describe below happened in real life and will start to answer the questions many readers of this column have about helping persons with disabilities in everyday situations.

It’s a spring day at OR Tambo International airport and the waiting hall is buzzing with lively conversation. Like so many other passengers,  I am on the long and winding road back home after a work trip.

A ground hostess from the airline is tasked with “meeting” and “assisting” me. After announcing herself and asking if she may assist, she well-meaningly puts her arm around me.

She does this because she is afraid to lose me, or that I may fall.

She does this because she is afraid to lose me, or that I may fall.

Stifling a laugh, and with politeness cultivated through many years of living with blindness, I gently but firmly take her wrist and with the other hand take her elbow and say: “Thank you. I’ll take the elbow to be walking half a step behind you.”

Once she is assured that I am holding on firmly and walking safely behind her, we end the sisterly embrace and make our way through security gates and finally onto the aircraft.

The next day I am back home, crossing the road with my guide-dog  (I think at that time it was Vanilla).

As we wait to cross the road, a well-meaning person proceeds to guide us away from the crossing, their arms around my shoulders, saying: ‘Let me help you.’

All this while Vanilla and I had our route planned out and were on a well thought out trip to the supermarket.

After rerouting and continuing on our way, we are waiting at the next crossing, a pesky traffic light takes forever to change, and I am listening carefully to move safely and with the traffic.

A kindly lady next to me gently breezes in: “I shall cross now, it is safe. Do you wish to cross with me?”

Having waited for what seemed an eternity, I take her up on her offer: I thank her and give the “forward” command to my dog.

Acceptable time and place

Looking back now, some situations I have encountered are rather comical.  However, on a serious note, there is certainly an acceptable time, place and method to offer help.

Please consider the points below when you  decide to help to someone with a disability.

Help – it’s personal

Help is a personal thing, whether disabled or not, and should be managed.

Wait until you are asked for help, unless it is clear from the situation that there is imminent danger, or that the situation is out of control. When you do help without being asked, explain why.

  • In a more controlled day to day situation, at the mall or restaurant, ask how you may assist. Sometimes it may be something small –the person is looking for something they dropped.

On another occasion, it may be a wheelchair user needing an object at the top of shelving in the supermarket.

While speaking to a blind person with a guide-dog or white cane, use a normal tone as you are quite audible to her.

  • In some cases, for example, to someone living with blindness or partial sight, information is key.

This may mean different things in social situations, for example you may be asked for information about a situation, who is in attendance, or how seating arrangements work.

  • Another situation: someone spilt something on a jacket. A tactful whisper and inconspicuous assistance to remove the spill will be most welcome.
  • Furthermore, never refer to a person with a disability in their presence: “How much sugar would she like in her coffee”. Address the person by name to grab their attention and include them in the conversation.
  • Never greet someone familiar with the person with disability and omit to greet them; It is rude and says they don’t exist

Finally, remember – help is only help when asked for or when it is clear that the situation warrants it and the dignity of the person receiving help is assured.

  • Pasha Alden is a Braille advocate and ability activist. Read her column monthly in Talk of the Town.

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