I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say “No”
- My wife tells the story of trying to cross a busy street in downtown Memphis as part of her mobility training when she was losing her vision. The instructor wanted her to have the experience of judging traffic to know when it was safe to cross as well as the challenge of actually crossing.
All was progressing well; she listened carefully to determine that the light had changed, the cars in front of her had all stopped, and she started to cross. Suddenly, a woman in one of the vehicles that had stopped jumped out of her car ran up to my wife, grabbed her by the arm, and started dragging her through the intersection to the other side of the street.
“Honey, you shouldn’t be doing this,” the good Samaritan said, “this isn’t safe. Let me help you.”
My wife tried to explain that the exercise was part of learning how to safely travel with a cane and that the instructor was on the corner supervising everything.
Well, that’s just stupid,” the woman announced as she marched back to her car, slamming the door behind her.
I thought of this story when recently listening to two students, one high-school and one college age, describing the most difficult things they had to adjust to while losing their vision. One of the two or three things at the top of both students’ lists was tactfully declining unwanted help. Like the actress in the Broadway show who sang, “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say ‘No’,” these students were struggling with how to decline assistance appropriately.
I attempted to deal with this question in a recent blog,
“The Nearly Perfect Question.” One reader wrote that he thought the blog topic was “pointless” and that, I think I’m summarizing his position correctly, the blind person ought to be grateful for any assistance that was offered, regardless how it might have been done.
I appreciate that blogs are simply an expression of opinion and that this reader is certainly entitled to his. I was surprised, however, at the vehemence of his feelings. As the above anecdote suggests, I think there’s, if not a right and wrong way to offer help, some ways that are more productive than others.
His note did make me think that I may have omitted one very important point in the previous blog that might have contributed to his misunderstanding, namely, the extent to which someone who is blind or losing their vision receives unsolicited advice. This is a “walk in my moccasin” moment.
At the risk of oversimplifying, let me describe three difference types of assistance all of us, whether disabled or not, encounter.
1. You yourself ask for assistance.
Example: I’m out of sugar. Would you mind if I borrowed some? 2. Someone else correctly assumes you need assistance.
Example: Did you know your turn-signal is out?
3. Unsolicited and unwanted advice.
Example: The back-seat driver.
The only problem with these examples is that they don’t begin to capture how much of the blind person’s world, especially if they are new to vision loss, is populated with back-seat drivers. To be sure, everyone confronts unsolicited advice, but, because it is usually infrequent, it is just a minor annoyance. If, like the students mentioned above, you are losing your vision and stepping through the looking glass into the world of the visually impaired, you are suddenly dealing with a tsunami of advice, some solicited and some unsolicited. This is not to say that you couldn’t benefit from some of this assistance, but the trade-off is that, just when you are most emotionally vulnerable and lacking in self-confidence, seemingly everyone around you is, with the best of intentions, bombarding you with the message that you really are less competent and need people to jump out of their cars and drag you across the metaphorical intersection.
So, what practical advice is there for the students who are being swamped with unwanted help? First, and foremost, begin every answer, regardless how unsolicited the request for assistance, with “Thank you.” If the advice is appropriate, this is what you should be saying anyway. If it is just a well-intentioned good Samaritan, it’s still suitable; all you have to do is just add a line or two to reassure them why the assistance isn’t needed – “Thank you for asking but …” Finally, for those very rare occasions when you’re certain you’re dealing with someone with a shallow gene pool, forcing yourself to start with “thank you” insures that you’re not going to say what you would like to but probably shouldn’t.
Like your mother told you, “thank you” are the magic words that, even as an adult, make saying “no” much more palatable.