“Can I help you?”
Friends who read First Impressions insisted that I go on to tell the story of what people say about me and my disability after they know me for awhile.
Let’s start with a First Impressions review. (New story, so you don’t get bored.) One of my summer jobs as a university student was in a print shop in Montreal. I worked at the clipping end of a blue print machine. Clipping . . .literally. I had a pair of scissors and cut out the blueprints as they emerged on an endless roll of paper. I couldn’t stop it. A guy at the other end had control. A print run could last several hours. I got spelled off for lunch, but basically I stood there clipping all day.
Standing was my problem. The job could only be done efficiently while standing. So I stood all day on polio weakened legs. The pressure under my brace was numbing. My right knee screamed for me to sit down. But I couldn’t let on. I was determined to prove I was as good as anyone else. I swallowed the pain and stony faced, kept going. When the foreman asked “How’re you doing?” I forced a smile and lied, “Great!”
After work I had to walk to Pointe St. Charles. I didn’t have bus money that first day. But walking was a little less painful than standing, so I figured I could make it.
I headed out the front door. The receptionist had already gone. A man had just entered the doorway I was about to use. Seeing me he turned back to hold the door for me. You need to have walked the disability trail to understand my reaction. If you haven’t what I did next will seem just plain rude. And it is. I walked by the man without looking at him and muttered “Damn you!” as I went by. I don’t know if he heard me, and at that point I didn’t really care. I had just successfully done a job an able-bodied person would find stressful. Who was this idiot to assume that I was a cripple incapable of opening a door?
Okay, I wasn’t being very rational. But having a disability is a complicated thing involving emotions. As you know, emotions aren’t always rational. Things can easily take a wrong turn. That’s where saying the right thing comes in . . . both for me and for you.
The universe is arranged in a perverse way. On one day I can be struggling with a door that is too heavy for me to open, and no one is there to help. Defeated, I may linger a bit, longing for a good Samaritan to appear. On another day I come to a door controlled by a simple push button and two people materialize, offering to help me. Approaching a push-button door I will quickly scan the area to see if there are any in-bound Samaritans. If there are I will either race them for the push button (if I’m sure I can win that race), or pretend I’m waiting for someone and then sneak through when they have gone.
I know it isn’t rational. Bear in mind that in public areas there are things you can do which I can’t. So I get a bit possessive about the things I can do. Like a three year old just having learned to peel an orange. Don’t offer help or you will hear “Do it self!”
Eye contact is very helpful. This is a badly neglected communication tool. It’s not so much neglected as avoided. The eyes communicate an enormous amount of information, with no language barrier. I became very aware of that when travelling in countries where I didn’t speak the language. Eye contact and body language were much more useful than a pocket dictionary. It’s the same with people who are none-verbal, including many toddlers. The eyes do the job every time.
The eyes are the door to the soul, I am told. I will sometimes avoid eye contact because I do not want to bare my soul to that particular person. Perhaps that is the key to the holding-the-door-open problem.
When I approach a door being held open for me I can look straight ahead, like I did in the earlier embarrassing example, or I can look the door-holding person in the eye. Looking straight ahead gives an “I’m just going to pretend this isn’t happening” message. It borders on rudeness, but comes with an escape clause. “Oh, I thought the door was propped open. Sorry.”
The other route is to look the person in the eye. This choice can be very rewarding. I can see in a face what would take a whole coffee break to put in words. What I see has an immediate impact on how I will respond. For instance, if I’m starting to feel irritated by yet another good Samaritan holding a door for me, seeing kindness in the eyes of that stranger can melt my irritation. The way is paved for a cheerful “Thank you!” and an equally cheerful “You’re welcome.”
The transition point between first impression and second impression happens with face-to-face eye contact. Once I fully look a person in the eyes they are no longer a stranger to me. We are entering the minefield that spans the territory of both First and Second Impressions. Our eyes are preparing the ground for our imminent conversation. That means the first words are very critical. They determine the direction the two of us will go from there. We stand at a fork in the road.
I don’t think I can offer you any error-proof rules about how to approach me as a friend who has a disability because there is no foolproof formula for any friendship. I am human and may do something that hurts you. You are human and may do something that hurts me. There are no guarantees. However, hurting does not bring the world to an end . . . nor a friendship. If handled with sensitivity healing a hurt can enhance the friendship.
Let me tell you about the one place where I can be with people and feel totally comfortable about exposing my disability. That is with other people who have disabilities. There is a bond that exists between us that is not particularly profound, but which feels comfortable. We all understand the feeling of being helped when we want to be independent. We get it. We all know the feeling of being admired for being courageous when we were just doing the routine things to get through our day. We get that also. (I tend to roll my eyes when sharing that one.) We all make jokes about people who assume we need pity or pandering or who want to treat us like a child. We don’t have to explain the joke. We just know.
S o be warned you people out there in the able-bodied world, when you talk about ways to give people with disabilities a fair deal in society. While you are talking about us, we are also talking about you.
I am encouraged by the fact that we are all starting to talk to one another.