What part of ‘I’m fine’ do you not understand?
I’m in a wheelchair and if I need help, I’ll ask for it. Don’t swoop in, don’t try to take over, don’t appoint yourself a hero, and, above all, don’t ‘good girl’ me
Louise Bruton poses for Ruthless Imagery Photography wearing a designer prosthetic leg by Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s Alternative Limb Project. Louise also wears creations by young Irish designer, Sophie Wallace, with make-up by Lorcan Devaney of Lorcansface
Lately, I’ve noticed an increase in people rushing to my side to help me. Because I’m in a wheelchair, people immediately assume I am struggling with something but the only thing I’m struggling with is where do people get off on assuming something about a total stranger.
I’ve learned to brush off a lot of things and I can appreciate that people just want to help, but it’s important to know when to help. I am strong and I am fiercely independent. I am lucky that the only time I actually need help is when supermarkets stock the goods on the highest shelf, not when I’m waiting at a pedestrian crossing or making my way through town.
Recently, as I was walking my dog and as he was sniffing up a telephone pole to see if it was good enough to piss on, a man grabbed my wheelchair from behind and pushed me. I had my headphones in so I didn’t hear him and he threw his face towards me, a smile beaming across his face. He startled me.
“I don’t need help,” I said. He kept pushing. “I do not need help, thanks.” With that, he let go and crossed the road. For the rest of my walk home, frustration heated up my face and tears stung my eyes.
Another time, an elderly woman came up to me and said, “Would you not get a motorised wheelchair?” Pointing at my dog, she says “Sure, walking him is great exercise for you, isn’t it?” I told her that I was quite mobile and didn’t need a motorised wheelchair. She told me her brother who has MS finds his very handy but I should keep smiling anyway because you can’t put a price on a smile. I changed direction and walked an extra 10 minutes home because she would have gone on like that the rest of the way.
That reminded me of a time a taxi driver said: “They love their independence, don’t they?” to my friend as I was getting out of the car. It’s hard to know if ‘they’ meant women or disabled people, but he talked above my head like I couldn’t understand or hear him. My friend was so exasperated by the whole thing I could hear him just “They?! What?!” before I dragged him away, saying it wasn’t worth it.
Podcast: Louise Bruton interview
My wheelchair is visible and it invites people to look at me and treat me differently. Almost every day, I have to reassure someone through a gritted smile that “I’m perfectly fine, thanks”. I’m not sure if it’s the double whammy of being female and disabled but I constantly have to prove my strength.
When I’m lifting my wheelchair into my car, people stop to ask if they can do anything. “I’m grand, thanks. I have a system”, I say and they hang on, as if to doubt me, and then with one arm, I hoist the wheelchair in with one swoop. They love their independence, don’t they?
In the gym, a place where no one should ever make eye contact, stares wash over me. “You’re a great girl, aren’t you?” one elderly man likes to tell me whenever he sees me, patting me on the back, exactly where my bra criss-crosses. When I’m getting my weights, hands dart in front of me. “Let me grab that for you,” they say. “Oh, no. I’m grand, thanks,” I say, again with my headphones in. And they look on in disbelief as I carry 6kg, 8kg and 10kg weighs. I check out their weights – 3kg. Maybe they’re the ones who need a hand.
In crowded places, such as music festivals, a bar on a Friday night or Grafton Street in the middle of the panicked Christmas shopping spree, it gets worse. If you’re sticking to a furious timetable or focused on ticking off the shopping list as quickly as possible, it’s hard to find the patience to feign politeness. “It’s great to see you out and about!”
When there’s drink involved, people get looser and the questions more inappropriate, the intensity harder to brush off. With a forced smile and blank eyes, you let their words hit you and fall off. Even if it’s a backwards compliment, you can’t let the words stick. You can’t reduce yourself to this one- dimensional view they have of you.
Trust our abilities
I don’t want to scare people into thinking that they shouldn’t help, but you cannot insert yourself into a situation, impose a problem and appoint yourself a hero. Disabled people are not there for your self-congratulatory good deed. Do not swoop in and do not assume. Don’t ‘good girl’ me – not even Drake can get away with that. Just ask. Ask if we want a hand carrying something or ask if we want them to grab the door. And then take our answer at face value. Trust our abilities. When we say we’re okay, don’t look at us in disbelief like we’re a five-year-old who just offered to cook the Christmas turkey. We’re not astonishing. We’re not inspiring.
Someone told me that maybe people are shocked to see people dealing with a situation they would find impossible if they were in our place. This is understandable, but this is our reality. Every day we do what we do and it’s no reason for a pat on the head. That happens, by the way.
Coming home from town late one murky evening, a voice from behind goes: “Where do you live?” Obviously unnerved by this question, I said nothing but he goes again: “Where do you live? I’m walking this way anyway. I can push you.”
Imagine you were pushing your child in a buggy or carrying a bag and a stranger elbowed you aside, took charge and said, “I’m going this way anyway”. Imagine how flustered you’d be. How aggravated that would make you feel. When you are just going about your daily business and someone imposes a hardship upon you, you feel worthless and small.
What part of me or my body language says that I am struggling? I’ve reassessed every situation in my head, to the point of exhaustion, and I need to remind myself that I am fine. I’m fine. Really. No, seriously. I am.