It was a crisp, chilly autumn afternoon in Logan, Utah. I was wheeling myself (I’m an ambulatory wheelchair user) to my doctorate-level Social Psychology class (as an undergraduate, by the way. #humblebrag 😉), rocking out to an odd yet entertaining mixture of Linkin Park and Disney songs through my earbuds.
What a wonderful phrase!
Ain’t no passing” —-
My head snapped back. My wheels would not move. I was a dog on a leash that had gone too far ahead of its owner. Stunned, I turned my head to see what – or who – was pulling me back. A tall, white male college student with sandy blonde hair stood there with the biggest grin on his face.
“Hey! Where’re you headed?” he asked with far too much enthusiasm.
“Umm… the Education Building…,” I begrudgingly replied.
“Oh, I know exactly where that is! Here, just hold my stuff and I’ll give you a push.” He then dumped 25 pounds of textbooks in my lap.
“Actually, I’d really rather do it myse–”
“It’s really no problem, I’m happy to help! Just let me tell my friend I’ll be a little late meeting him at the gym.” He then proceeded to call his friend on the phone to explain he was helping someone.
As I awkwardly sat there, unwittingly playing the role of Damsel in Distress, so many questions went through my head:
“I’m like 50 yards away from the door. Could I make a roll for it? Will he run after me? But what do I do with his books on my lap?” Just as I was mustering the courage to get the heck outta Dodge, he hung up the phone and started pushing me down the bumpy and cracked sidewalk.
As he so-called “dropped me off,” I was fuming with rage. Usually I manage to utter a half-hearted “thanks” to my well-meaning kidnapper (yes, being kidnapped is unfortunately a common occurrence for me), but not this time. I was too angry. I said nothing and wheeled away.
However, when I reached my classroom on the fourth floor, my anger was replaced by the routine overwhelming feeling of guilt for being curt toward him. This is no new emotion for me; I feel guilty about everything I’ve ever done wrong. I’m one of those people who lay awake at 3:00 a.m. thinking of the time(s) I said, “you too” after a movie theater usher hoped that I “enjoy the show.” But this guilt was more powerful. It was there to remind me that I possibly ruined someone’s day, and even worse, tainted someone’s perception of every future interaction with a member of the disability community as a result of going off-script. I just didn’t want to act like the helpless girl in the wheelchair. Because I am a girl in a wheelchair. But I am not helpless.
This is what it is like to be a female wheelchair user. I want to be perceived as a strong, independent woman; I truly do. But it seems there’s so little chivalry or kindness these days, that it’s difficult to reject any overt act of it – even when it is done at the wrong time, wrong place, or with the wrong intentions. I feel a responsibility to be a gentle, kind, caring woman, but at the same time, I’m forced to be a firm, convincing, and determined self-advocate, and therefore an advocate on behalf of all my fellow wheelchair users. It is hard not to feel conflicted.
Plus, there are times that I actually need help as a consequence of living disabled in a world set up for those without disabilities. There are things that I physically cannot do, and I can admit to that. However, believe me when I say that those instances are far and few between. I’ve been doing this for 21 years, and I’ve learned a few tricks here and there. It’s not like I go out in public depending on strangers to get me to my destination safely. But if I suspect that I’ll need assistance, I will bring someone whom I trust along with me, or I will ask someone nearby if it’s a small and simple task, like moving their toes two inches so I can physically fit on the metro car or directing me to the nearest elevator. There’s something empowering and dignifying about the act of asking for help when it is genuinely needed.
So…I hope this doesn’t discourage the would-be knights of the world whose assistance is welcome and needed. But I also hope that would-be knights would offer their help, or even wait to be asked, instead of assuming that I and other women with disabilities need rescuing. I hope that they will be responsive and understanding and unoffended when I respond with a smile, “No thank you, I got it,” because that’s the truth. I do.