In my previous post I aimed to draw the readers’ attention to some phenomena in speech interaction, namely how to say one thing while meaning quite the opposite. The first example I chose, “I don’t mean to patronise you, but…” opened a door which lead the topic into a different direction. Is it patronising to offer somebody help?
Of course, it is a very nice act to offer a helping hand to somebody. No doubt about that. I, as a blind pedestrian, am by no means ungrateful if somebody offers me help. I am aware that the line between ‘helping somebody’ and ‘patronising somebody’ is very thin. It is a difficult situation for the well-meaning person.
Generally, as little as a person in a wheelchair appreciates a sympathetic pet on the head, a blind person agrees with the assumption that somebody needs help to navigate just because they cannot see. Sometimes I need help, and I am happy if somebody gives me a hand.
What frustrates me is the combination of bad timing and that many people do not pay attention to details. Many people do not watch, do not think before acting.
Four times within the past six years, a cane of mine got broken because another pedestrian fell over it. One time out of four, the person who broke my stick stayed and asked whether I need help. Relieved, I accepted and asked the young man to walk to the office of the National council for the Blind of Ireland, @NCBI_SightLoss, with me as I needed a new cane. When he realised this, I guess he wished he had never asked me. En route to the NCBI office, I could feel and hear his worries that he would have to pay for a new cane. I presume it was either this prospect or embarrassment which made the people on the other three occasions silently leave the scene. However, nobody else, no other pedestrians ever stopped to help me either. a friend’s unsurprised explanation went like this: “Of course, they don’t stop! They think that you might think it was them who broke your cane and that they have to buy you a new one.” A sad thought, this.
the two universities where I have done my research and teaching in the past few years are Galway and Maynooth. Both have one thing in common: the routes to get to the campus are relatively easy and have become so familiar to me that I can think and ponder about this and that on my way to college. A few times, I walked to the campus, followed the wall beside me, knew that there are no static obstacles on my way, happily whistling, when quick footsteps approached me from behind followed by the question whether I need help. It does not frustrate me that somebody offered me help. It frustrates me that they did not watch, did not think. Does a person who walks steadily along a wall, happily whistling, who does not stop every few meters in order to check whether there is someone around to give him a hand… Does such a person look helpless?
So, either I need help and nobody stops, or I look quite confident and, as Sandra said in her comment on my previous post, just think about something, and then people want to help. I find this strange.
I mean, people stare at blind people or people in wheelchairs anyway; why not pay attention for signs of confidence or helplessness, while you’re at it?
Often, people have given me a hand, or better: an elbow, to cross the road, which I happily accepted. As Sandra stated in her previous comment, sometimes it just makes things easier, and I fully agree. Often, the helping elbow wanted to stay with me and ask me tons of questions about my life. I generally do not mind this too much, but quite often, it is just distracting, stressful, or I just do not feel like reciting my CV and hospital history to a stranger.
In case you are taking notes: I was born with a cateract in one eye and a retina issue in the other. Rare stuff. One eye turned blind in 1995, the other in 1999. Sixteen times, an anaesthetist shook my hand and wished me good night before putting me under for an operation.
I wonder, though, what the nosy person would say if I returned the bombardment of “Have you always been blind? Was it an accident? Are you married? Is your wife also blind?”
I could ask: “why are you walking around here by yourself? Do you not have a partner? Have you got any children? Are you divorced, or is the child from a students party? Do you always take the bus home? Is it too far to walk or are you just lazy?
No, I am by no means ungrateful for help! I just wish people would pay a bit more attention to the things around them sometimes, look into people’s faces rather than stare at their cane or wheelchair. Smile at them, wish them a good day, perhaps find out this way if they approach you and ask for help.