Let Go!

// 11 January 2010

Tags: , ,

I’ve been told about the phenomenon by various disabled people, but had never experienced it myself until today. The phenomenon of a complete stranger grabbing hold of you without warning, to ‘help’.

Today was the first time I left the house since the snow started. It was a very scary prospect. My walking can be pretty dodgy at the best of times, but amidst ice and snow I just haven’t been able to risk it. But by today I was tearing my hair out. I needed to see something other than my 4 walls. So, yaktrax and woolly hat on, I ventured out.

It was pretty precarious. The city centre pavements were worse than I’d anticipated, but I did most of what I had to do, then waited for my bus home.

It was when the bus arrived that the presumably well-meaning man grabbed me. From behind. By the shoulders. The jumping-out-of-my-skin which resulted was far more likely to make me lose my balance than any amount of ice, and his holding onto my shoulders was hardly going to help with that.

It was only when he said, “Here, let me help you on the bus” that I knew I wasn’t being mugged.

I know, I know, he was only trying to help. But seriously, grabbing a woman from behind is not a good thing to do. It’s inappropriate and way too invasive to personal space. And when that woman has a walking stick, which is perhaps why you’re grabbing her, you’re probably more likely to cause injury than to prevent it.

If you really want to help, just ask. I would have actually appreciated being able to hold onto Mr Grabby’s arm to help me on the bus, had he asked if I needed any help. Don’t presume, don’t grab, don’t force a blind person across the road or a wheelchair user down a kerb. If you ask, and they need help, they’ll tell you what you can do. And you won’t frighten or injure them that way.

(Cross-posted at incurable hippie blog)

Comments From You

apu // Posted 12 January 2010 at 4:11 am

It’s so surprising that this even needs to be said. Shouldn’t basic manners include not touching anyone without asking them first? (Unless you’re making an emergency dive to save them from an oncoming bus!)

spiralsheep // Posted 12 January 2010 at 11:11 am

Great post. Thank you.

teapot // Posted 13 January 2010 at 3:33 pm

i do agree with your post, but i feel that the person is only trying to help. people are akward creatures and even though with hindsight touching anyone without permission is wrong at least they are trying to help.x

Philippa Willitts // Posted 13 January 2010 at 4:50 pm

He was trying to help, yes. One of the reasons I wanted to put the post up was to let people know that ‘helping’ in this way is actually dangerous and intrusive, so to think twice.

George // Posted 13 January 2010 at 5:36 pm

@ apu and teapot –

Able privilege includes the right to negotiate yourself around the world without being manhandled, patronised or babied. Although you may think that everyone automatically gets this right (though it may be occassionally contravened by men etc), disabled people will tell you otherwise. “Awkwardness” doesn’t cover it – it’s the assumption that all disabled people are stupid, weak, helpless and unable to communicate with able-bodied people – thus, they need to be “helped” in this way.

Which, as you can imagine, is highly annoying, patronising and dangerous – and even more annoying when other able-bodied people go “Oh but they’re nice really!” Because that ain’t the point at all, and it shames the disabled person into “being good” and shutting up.

Similarly – “He wasn’t being sexist, he was being chivalrous and nice, you shouldn’t get cross”.

(Please, I’m currently able-bodied, so if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick shout me down).

Philippa Willitts // Posted 13 January 2010 at 6:06 pm

George, you’ve definitely got the right end of the stick, thank you! Very much appreciated.

Anne Onne // Posted 13 January 2010 at 6:20 pm

As others have said, it’s amazing that basic courtesy isn’t that well known. It doesn’t help that as people, when we try to do something helpful and aren’t met with as much success, we get defensive. ‘I was only trying to help! What’s your problem’ is a typical reaction. I think it bears remembering for all of us willing to help that people don’t always want help. If someone says ‘No, thank you.’ or seems weirded out, it’s not a bad reflection on you. It’s just that people have reason to be suspicious. We can all be suspicious with strangers, especially with harassment and other crimes very much on our minds.

I think part of the problem (in addition to able-bodied privilege, obviously) is that some people don’t see body contact as a big deal. Some people feel that because they don’t mind (the concept of, if not perhaps the reality) what they consider non-problematic body contact, that therefore everybody should be OK with it, and that anyone who isn’t is overreacting. They’re really not. They can’t help being disturbed by something, and it’s not helpful to have people scare the hell out of you.

Of course, that also reminds me of the people who insist street harassment or groping is fine because they don’t mind it, or the idea of it. The bottom line is you shouldn’t assume that because you think something is OK that everyone else should. It’s safest to assume people don’t want contact unless proven otherwise.

I will admit to having tapped people on the shoulder before, though (for example, keys or significant money had fallen out of their pockets) when all verbal ‘excuse me, sir’ communication hadn’t got their attention. I feel quite bad in case I startled them (I know I don’t like strangers poking me), but I hope they would have appreciated being informed of it.

As to the ‘nice’ issue: I think it’s worth pointing out on threads like this that allies can help by learning to be nice in a way that best benefits those they are trying to help. Just like there’s a proper way to deliver first aid to actually be useful, people shouldn’t assume they know the ‘best’ way to help and can’t work on how to interact with people. As a currently able-bodied person, I appreciate discussion of how to not act presumptuous or unhelpful. I don’t think that it’s being unduly harsh to point out that being the wrong kind of helpful can scare people.

teapot // Posted 13 January 2010 at 6:21 pm

i understand your point and do agree with you. i just think its about educating people and not being nasty at someone for trying to help. even though they arent actually helping they are trying to do good for someone so to be nasty towards them for trying to help is a terrible thing. at least they didnt just watch as someone is having difficulty, they are trying to help. education is the key. and we should be slower at critizing people.x

Philippa Willitts // Posted 13 January 2010 at 6:25 pm

But I haven’t been nasty about him. I have explained what happened, and explained exactly why it is a really bad idea. Other commenters have added more to that explanation.

Sometimes, like in this case, trying to help causes more problems than it solves, and people need to know that.

You say education is the key – my post was about telling people why randomly grabbing someone from behind in the street is a bad idea – educating people of that!

Sometimes criticism is necessary and important. It wasn’t just that grabbing a person ‘isn’t helping’, it’s also that it can cause harm and distress and fear.

polly // Posted 13 January 2010 at 6:47 pm

I suggest that anyone who doesn’t have a disability thinks about a time when a man has leapt in front of them to open a door they were just about to open themselves.

If I saw anyone clearly struggling, say trying to carry heavy bags, I’d probably ask if I can help. But it’s incredibly patronising/irritating when someone assumes you’re not capable of doing something. And a man assuming he has the right to grab a woman is also an exercise male privilege.

There’s an interesting piece on some men’s attitudes towards disabled women here by the way


Butterflywings // Posted 14 January 2010 at 3:40 pm

What George, Anne Onne and Polly said.

And yes, intention isn’t everything. On being told you have somehow upset/ offended, the adult response is to explain, apologise and think about why – if necessary, change the behaviour in future. Not just to huff ‘I was trying to help!’

And yes, this reminded me of ‘chivalry’ etc too. Ugh.

It is just basic manners to *ask* before helping, isn’t it? And listen to the answer, and not help? Recently I was dragging a heavy case on public transport, a man offered to help me with it, I said no thanks and he still actually grabbed my case. GRRR.

To assume you know what someone needs better than they do is incredibly dehumanising. I really think some people want to *be someone who helps*, and their self-image as such is more important than whether the other person actually wants or needs their help.

Anne Onne, I don’t like being touched by strangers either. Even a shoulder tap or poke to get my attention. Women’s bodies being public property, of course, how dare we expect to be able to set boundaries on who touches us and how and when?

To be honest, I tend towards being in my own little world so am more likely to lose things, than notice someone else has left something.

Personally, I’d really rather be left alone if I’m going about my business, than get back some small item I dropped, say, an earring or hair clip that’s fallen out.

This happened on the bus home the other day – I heard a guy say ‘excuse me’ and ignored it, because frankly, it’s more likely to be harrassment than anything (I’ve fallen for the innocent enquiry that rapidly turns into ‘do you have a boyfriend?’ etc. too many times. Sigh.) Anyway, turned out an earring had come out.

Not everyone can be touched. I am just an introvert and don’t like it. Some people may actually be caused pain, physical or mental. It’s not possible to know some random stranger isn’t autistic, or has some physical condition that makes touching them on the shoulder or wherever painful, or had surgery recently, or you know, bumped that exact spot the other day and has a huge bruise. I would never touch anyone I don’t know for that reason. (I’m not having a go at anyone here though, and I’m sure I have done in the past). If I did see someone had left something of value, I’d try to get their attention verbally, or visually (eye contact, wave at them), but if that didn’t work I’d hand it in to the police/ transport police/ shop management, etc. (If it *wasn’t* particularly valuable, I still might, or would leave it in case they came back).

I’ve rambled, but I think it is all to do with personal boundaries. No-one ever knows what another person needs or wants without asking.

Denise // Posted 14 January 2010 at 4:44 pm

For a man to grab a woman by the shoulders from behind is an incredibly thoughtless thing to do under any circumstances. ‘Meaning well’ is not good enough in this case. We all know what that road to hell is paved with…! And assuming you just have the right to take hold of someone you see as weaker and less able than yourself. No. Not good. I don’t see that Philippa has to be ‘nice’ and make excuses for him. As she says, it was dangerous and she could have been injured. There is no excuse for someone being so unaware.

Jennifer Hays Woods // Posted 3 February 2010 at 8:20 pm

LOVE this! It’s not wrong to want to be helpful, but it IS wrong to presume to know what kind of help is needed. As a government officer with the Division of Disabilities, for a state government in the US this is an important lesson to communicate.

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