My local supermarket had self checkouts installed not long after I moved back to my home town. I would guess I was more excited than most about the idea. I love new gadgets and technology. I love that technology is making our lives easier every day. There was another reason for my excitement though: I could do everything myself. Supermarket shopping could now be done without assistance. Unless of course I needed something from a high shelf.

Interdependence might be the ideal but sometimes all I want is to be left alone and to do the things I can do for myself. I had got very used to being left alone in the city. I found I had to adjust again to losing my anonymity. People offer to help me all the time. That is both a blessing and a curse.

With self checkouts I so appreciate that I can now go into a supermarket, headphones blaring – Metallica, anybody? – and complete my shop without anybody bothering me. At some point though I will probably have some stealthy customer sidle up to me as I’m trying to decide which variety of beans I would like in my chicken casserole and ask:

‘Do you need any help?’

To which I always used to reply, ‘No’, bugger off implied. Charming, I know. My tone of voice reflected a frustration that I couldn’t do everything for myself and that I sometimes needed help. More than that though, I was angry that people assumed I needed help. Often I didn’t. Occasionally I would realise that the navy beans were on the highest shelf. Bridges burnt, casserole would evolve into curry. I’ve got over myself now. I’ve grown up a lot and mellowed a bit. Now I tend to say, ‘No, thanks’. Occasionally I’ll say, ‘Yes, please’. Hell, I sometimes even ask for help myself now if I need it.

What I couldn’t understand when the new self checkout system was installed was why the staff kept helping me: packing groceries, explaining the system, pressing the correct buttons, etc. As far as I was concerned I had made the considered decision to go through the self checkout lane precisely because I didn’t need or want any help. I often felt more patronised than if I’d just gone through one of the ordinary checkouts. Most of the staff knew me and over time had got used to helping me at the checkout only when I needed it and they would ask first.

Then one day, a few weeks after the new self checkouts were installed, I was taught a valuable lesson. A staff member who I’d found to be very patronising on the self checkout went through the normal routine of pressing most of the buttons for me, making sure my groceries were being packed properly, ensuring I put my card in the right slot and on and on until I found myself getting properly wound up. The worst of it though was that she addressed me as ‘love’ the whole time. It was all I could do to bite my tongue. I was beyond irritated. On this occasion I carried my groceries on my lap and stopped at the wall nearest to the checkout so that I was out of the way and could get the groceries onto the back of my wheelchair without interference. I was doing this when I heard:

‘Hi love. Here, let me help you. First you need to press this, and then you do that. Oh, I know, love…’ On it went, nearly word for word as if our exchange had been scripted and was being acted out again for the purposes of, goodness knows. Only this time one of the actors was different. The customer was able bodied. It dawned on me. I was being trained just as everyone else was. I was being treated the same as the other customers.

It had clearly been reasoned that there was no time to sort out who might need help and who would figure out the new machines easily. They were probably also trying to save people the embarrassment of not knowing what they were doing. I also realised that they needed to keep things moving. The place was busy.

I went home feeling like an idiot. I had done that to myself. My new interpretation of events was confirmed when I observed the same process every time I went back until, without saying a word, I was on my own and properly independent. The training wheels were off.

This experience and others have taught me a lot about myself. I now accept that, through conditioning, I have become too quick to judge people for wanting to help. I also accept that because of how I have been treated, I expect that people will pity me, judge me, patronise me, so I look for it. Don’t get me wrong, it is often there. If I’m out and about I still, too often, get treated terribly. A retail employee might ignore me and serve the person behind me with the assumption that they are my carer, or young adults will yell abuse at me, or someone will talk to me loudly and slowly in words of no more than two syllables.

Can I be blamed for being on the defensive when these interplays are normal and an uneventful interaction is an event? I often catch myself feeling grateful when I’m treated like ‘everyone else’.

It does still bother me, the assumption that I need help. I would much rather people took in the context of the situation and applied the same logic as one might for anybody else: Does the person look like they are struggling and in need of help? No? Move on, nothing to see here. Yes? Ask first. If they say no to help, accept that. If they are rude to you, that’s their problem. They might have had a lot of people offering unwanted assistance on that particular day. Life might be a bit rubbish for them at that moment. They could be venting at the frustration they feel every day that society still makes it difficult for us to live our lives in a world where the words ‘able’ and ‘normal’ are synonymous. They could also be yer garden variety asshole. Think of it as a Venn diagram: people with disabilities and assholes. We are not all victims or heroes. Some of us are bastards.

People with disabilities are more visible now than ever and I’m sure we will become even more so as barriers continue to come down. As diversity becomes the new normal, we are starting to realise we have more in common than we might think. One thing we all have in common is that sometimes we need help and sometimes we just want to be left alone. I’m just trying to get my shopping done like everyone else.


One response to “Help?

  • Duncan

    I think our own perceptions of the world around us can be quite a disability; or perhaps, our inabilities to properly deal with how our perceptions are informing us. We’re all wearing training wheels, in one way or another; or, as it was once put: “we are all ignorant, just of different things.” Ignorance of other people’s situations, and whether or not those situations lead to their needing help—and if so, how much—is only changed by a learning process, a process in which we might make mistakes before getting it right.

    Your post brings to mind an occasion recently, when I was crossing a car park and noticed a wheelchair-bound man unloading a trolley into the back of his 4WD vehicle. What caught my attention was that he was about to lift a carton of bottled water. 12 litres = 12 kg, and after a rapid assessment that this would be easier for a mobile person to lift than someone in a wheelchair, I weighed up (in a fraction of a second) whether or not to offer help. I did make the offer, and he responded fairly cheerily with something like “it’s fine; I do this every day”.

    Would I have offered if he had been able-bodied? Probably not. Would I have offered if he had at the same time been trying to unlock the car? Very possibly. Would I have hesitated, if I knew it was something he did every day? I don’t know. Just because it’s a daily occurrence, does that in itself mean that no help is required? I do know that I offer to help other people, in various circumstances, where I see a possible need. Even if it just makes that person’s life slightly easier for a moment.

    For a brief moment, I wondered whether I had offended, and been given a brush-off, albeit a civil one. However, I also decided quickly that it would be neither healthy nor productive to dwell upon that thought, as it would be pure speculation. I took the exchange at face value, and moved on.

    I think that all we can do, if so inclined, is offer help where we see it might be needed *and* welcomed. Sometimes we’ll get it wrong, and just move on. If we’re lucky, the process will teach us something, and we might get it right next time. Ultimately though, in a caring society, I feel we all need to learn to accept help, without it being seen as sign of a failing or weakness. As an individual act, it will be unlikely to change the world, but collectively such acts are what make the world go round.

    It’s late. I’ve got out of bed at 1am after being woken by my own coughing. I’ve had a large medicinal sherry to soothe the throat. I may not, therefore, be in a lucid frame of mind. But I hope this helps 🙂

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