“I Was Just Trying to Help”: Good Intentions, Bad Consequences

Imagine you’re waiting to cross the street at a busy corner. It’s the end of a long day, and you just want to get home. Just as the light is about to turn green, two strangers come up behind you.

“You’re at a street,” one of them says in a kindergarten-teacher type voice. “Where are you trying to go?” the other one asks. Then before you can answer, the two strangers grab you, one on each arm, and start pulling in different directions.

How would you feel? And what would you do?

Now, let’s change a few things in the scenario. Perhaps you walk with crutches or a cane, and the stranger grabs your mobility device instead of your arm, throwing you off balance. Maybe you use a wheelchair and they try to push you off a curb. Maybe you’re blind and the voices distract you so you miss the parallel traffic surge and have to wait another whole cycle to cross safely. Maybe they’re nudging you to cross when the light’s not even green, because they’re drunk or not paying attention. Maybe you just had surgery on your arm and they grab you right in the spot that’s still healing, triggering shock and pain. Maybe you have a history of trauma or abuse, and the unexpected touch sends you into a panic.

How would you feel? And what would you do?

We can envision a whole host of harmful consequences emerging from this scenario. And, most people react to potential harms by trying to defend themselves. But, regardless of which scenario we’re looking at, the strangers here will almost always say they had good intentions. They were “just trying to help.”

Knowing they had good intentions, does that change how you would feel? Or what you would do?

These kinds of things happen to disabled people all the time. Having people ineptly try to “help” us gets exhausting and demoralizing, and sometimes can be outright dangerous. Interactions across ability lines are interesting in that, so often, there is a real disconnect between intent and consequence. The “helper” has good intentions but executes them in a way that can cause real harm. The disconnect is frustrating for both parties. If the disabled person responds to the consequence (by refusing “help” that is dangerous, for example), the would-be helper feels rebuffed, while the disabled person is perceived as rude for rejecting a well-intended act. But if the disabled person responds to the intent, accepting this “help,” they risk sacrificing their self-respect or even their physical safety. It can be a real struggle for two people across ability lines, who both want to be kind and polite, to know what to do. Especially when time is limited, like at a busy street corner.

Before I propose some remedies for this situation, let’s briefly examine some reasons why this gap exists between intent and consequence. Part of it lies in the lay belief that disabled people automatically need help, or the automatic perception that a disabled person is struggling. This occurs when people are stuck in the third stage of inclusion. People may abandon cultural norms (such as personal space norms) in order to “help.” Further, there are often misunderstandings of how experience differs across ability lines. Something that may be harmless when done to a nondisabled person can have harmful effects in the context of disability, which may be hard to predict ahead of time.

To give an example, sighted people often want to guide me by pulling on my body from behind or from the side. When somebody does this, I am no longer fully in control of my own movement, and my center of balance is disrupted. This makes me feel very unsafe, and in fact I have had experiences in the past where being pulled in this manner caused me to trip or bump into obstacles. So, I will not walk while anyone is pulling on my body. When I explain this to other blind people, they seem to understand, but when I explain it to sighted people, they are often confused about the potential danger. It is possible that sighted people might automatically compensate for this kind of disruption to their center of balance. So, often a sighted person will grab me, I’ll ask them to let go, and they will become confused and upset.

How do we relieve this frustrating disconnect between intent and consequence? Ideally, we figure out how to act on our good intentions in ways that have positive effects, not negative effects. The “would I do this to a nondisabled person?” is a good starting point. Before initiating an interaction, ask yourself, “Would I do this if the person didn’t have a visible disability?” For example, do I typically go up to strangers on the street and ask them where they are trying to go? If not, then maybe it’s best not to do to a disabled person either.

But, there’s more to it than that. Reconciling intent and consequence requires humility, patience, and willingness to listen. It involves recognizing that the other’s experience may be different from one’s own. It involves asking the other, or taking cues from them, on the best way to help or not help.

Last week I took a Lyft ride home. My driver, Leon, parked in the parking lot, and I had to cross a slightly uneven grassy area to get to the car. I found the grass with my cane and prepared to step up with my left foot. Leon grabbed my right elbow. I knew that the force on my right arm would make it more difficult for me to pivot over to my left leg, and that it put me at risk for losing my balance. So, I asked Leon to release my arm. Instead of getting offended or upset, he apologized and allowed me to get into the car independently. During the ride home, we discussed the incident and I explained how being grabbed on the side disrupted my center of balance. I suggested that if a blind person needed support with balance, that it is best to allow them to grab your arm instead of the reverse. Leon explained that he thought he was supporting my balance by grabbing me. His instinct was to do the opposite of what was safe for me. However, he was willing to listen to my perspective and learn what to do in the future with new passengers. I’m using Leon’s first name on this post because we often fail to recognize those individuals who are willing to grow and learn.

Reconciling intent with consequence starts with the “Stop. Ask. Listen.” Paradigm. Taking a step back, asking what is needed, and listening to the response. If there are barriers to communication (language differences, a nonspeaking person, time constraints, etc.) then adjust behavior according to the person’s nonverbal reactions (e.g., if you grab my arm and I break away, don’t grab me again). If we ask before acting, then we are guaranteed not to do something that is unwanted by the other. On the disabled side of the equation, I still struggle to know how to respond to the mix of good intent and bad consequence. I try to respond with honesty about what I want and need, but also with compassion for the other person’s good intentions. Some days I’m better at that than others. It is unfortunate when disabled people judge each other for how we respond in these difficult situations. I am encouraged by those nondisabled people who genuinely want to dialogue with us and learn from us. I am hopeful that we can work together to translate positive intent into positive action.

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