A few months ago, a blind man boarded my bus and the driver explained to him which seat was open. The man thanked him, sat down and told the driver where he was getting off. The driver indicated when we were approaching the stop. After the man got off, he asked which direction he needed to go to get to a particular building. The bus driver seemed stumped. Another passenger who had gotten off noticed, returned to the bus and offered to walk the man to his final destination.
My first reaction was to be moved by one person helping another. Simple story right?
But it started me thinking.
A few months ago, I had some medical procedures and was in a lot of pain. My doctor relented to my request to go to a wedding out of state after the surgery, but said there was a condition. I was not allowed to lift anything. “And that includes lifting things into the overhead bin on the airplane” she told me.
I agreed quickly (before she could change her mind) but was surprised to find how nervous I was about asking someone to help me, a seemingly able bodied woman to lift a relatively light suitcase and put it in the overhead bin.
I imagined that people would think of me as helpless, or just wanting attention or being a wussy girl. I have spent most of my life doing things on my own and I didn’t want to ask a complete stranger to help me. I tried to calm myself by saying that it was the job of airline attendants to do that kind of thing and that for some people it wouldn’t be a very big deal at all. But it bothered me that I would have no way to get it up there if someone didn’t help me. It bothered me to be dependent on others.
I nervously dreamt about it the night before I left on my trip. When I got to the airport, I asked the gate attendant how to ask for help. He seemed puzzled by my question.
“Oh just ask and someone will help you.”
When I asked, it didn’t seem to be a big deal to the person who helped me. I’m sure I too have helped someone put a bag in the overhead bin and I’m pretty sure it didn’t register on a list of things that I thought about a second time. I could do it, so I just helped.
It made me think of a video of a conversation that Judith Butler had with Sunaura Taylor as they took a walk. It’s worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0HZaPkF6qE
They discuss an anecdote where Taylor goes to a coffee shop and buys a cup of coffee. She is in a wheelchair and needs either to ask for help in getting her coffee to her table, or to move it with her mouth. She talks about how using a part of one’s body for such a task can be difficult for able bodied people to watch.
She says, “In a way it’s a political protest for me go in and to order a coffee and to demand help. Simply because, in my opinion, help is something we all need. And it is looked down upon.”
In their discussion, Butler responds with “Indeed, when you ask for some assistance with the coffee, you’re basically posing the question ‘Do we or do we not live in a world where we assist each other?’ ‘Do we or do we not help each other with, with… with basic needs?’ And are basic needs there to be decided on as a social issue and not just my personal individual or your personal individual issue? So there is a challenge to individualism that happens at the moment you ask for some assistance with the coffee cup. And hopefully people will take it up and say ‘yes I too live in that world in which I understand that we need each other to address our basic needs.’” (Emphasis mine).
What Butler and Taylor are saying is that it is an illusion that we are independent from one another. We believe that we are independent, that we do not need one another. People with disabilities remind us, through their dependence, that we too are dependent.
But here’s the thing, it is uncomfortable to be dependent, it’s vulnerable. But the core question that we’re asking when we ask for help is what Butler describes and I think it’s a really core question to ask:
“Do we or do we not live in a world where we assist each other?”
Do we or do we not live in a world where we will accept help and offer help?