Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Being the Observer

[I wish I could place this entry in December because the events occurred then and it completes the month's theme. Anyone know how?]

It isn't often that I am able to observe an unfamiliar disabled person as they interact with a stranger. On one of my flights traversing the country, I was in the perfect position to watch such an interaction.
Let me paint the picture. I was sitting in the window seat of the bulkhead row and two men were to my right. The man in the center seat clearly didn't have a physical disability as I heard him walk onto the plane. I didn't know why the young man was sitting in the aisle seat, but it didn't particularly matter one way or another as the three of us barely interacted.
Then, we had a very rough landing with a lot of bouncing. Center Seat Man turned to Aisle Man and asked, "Do you need help?"
"Um," says Aisle Man.
"It's not a problem. Really," says Center Seat Man.
"I sort of need to be pulled up," says Aisle Man.
Center Seat Man aids him with a "There you go, buddy." I mentally cringe because buddy is the male equivalent of sweetie which I hate getting from total strangers.
Center Seat Man is being very jocular and offers any other help needed. The more he offers, the quieter Aisle Man becomes.
Finally, Aisle man comes out with, "the landing made my shoe fall off." (I still haven't figured out the logistics of that happening.....)
The shoe is fixed. Slowly, Center Seat Man's jovial chatter peters out and the interacting stops.
Throughout the exchange, I could practically taste how Aisle Man, who turned out to be a wheelchair user, was feeling. I could hear the hesitation as he tried to figure out if some strange man could help or if it would make matters worse. I could sense his reluctance to seek help. I could tell he wanted to pretty much be anywhere but there.
Aisle Man's discomfort was as familiar to me as my own bed. Watching another dealing with those emotions was instructive. In fact, it has changed how I approach some aspects of seeking help. Perhaps I should watch more disabled people cope with the general public, because it's almost more interesting than analyzing my own interactions.


Anonymous said...

Is casually asking "Do you need anything?" once and only once the right way to approach this? Should it be followed by a simple "Let me know if you do." if nothing is asked for at that point?

Jen said...

Yes, Wombat, that works. You could even simplify it to "Let me know if you need anything."

The point is to treat it like you would treat asking someone if they want you to pass them the mashed potatoes.

It is the responsibility of the person being asked to voice their own needs. Watching someone struggle with it the way I internally sometimes struggle highlighted to me the fact that being clear and upfront about your needs actually makes it easier on everyone involved.