Monday, October 24, 2011

Who Needs It? Label: People Suck

So, I'm sitting alone in the airport -- a small town airport.  I've gone through security a little ahead of my friends, and I am waiting by the window.  A woman approaches me.  "There's a dollar over there.  Is it yours?"  I look.  Sure enough, there's a dollar on a seat two rows over.  I shake my head.  Then, it begins.

The woman asks if I would like the dollar.  I say no.  "No," she tells me.  "Take the dollar.  You can have it."  I respond: "It's yours; you saw it."  "I'm giving it to you...."  At this point, I get a little, well, pissy.  I make it perfectly clear that I don't want to take the dollar.  It is a strange situation after all.  I didn't see the dollar.  It's not my dollar.  But the scene is sadly familiar.  It's like this one from 2008:
Starbucks. Me drinking bad coffee and reading my email. A bright and beautiful teen picks up her coffee. School ended early today; she's with her friends, enjoying the freedom. She fumbles her purse, the change, and the drink. 10c falls on the floor at my feet. I turn to see what the noise is. And just catch her... "Please, keep it. I don't need it." I look at her. She has her whole future in front of her; she thinks she's doing me a favour. I realize how I must seem. There's absolutely nothing to say. Where would I even start? I leave the money on the floor, pack up my computer, and leave.
Just as that frisson of recognition happens, the woman turns to me with that sainted pious look on her face.  "I'll take it," she says, "and I promise to give it to the next person who needs it."

That's the story.  I'm in my wheelchair; I must need the dollar.  This despite the fact that I am in an airport and am travelling (probably don't need the dollar any more than anyone else who just paid for a plane ticket).  Despite the fact that I am carrying a cup of coffee that I just bought (for a dollar).  Despite the fact that, in my mind's eye at least, I look as in need as she does (i.e, like any other passenger).  Yes, it's the disability thing.  I'm needy, because I am disabled.

When my friends come over, the situation shifts -- sharply.  I go from being an object of forced charity to being a human being.  She chats with my friends about the weather and gestures towards me, inclusively, as she talks.  I glower.  The atmosphere dissolves.

Except.  But.

I am furious still with the predatory nature of charity.  So overwhelming, it seems, is the urge to do good that the people who do it cannot see the humanity of those they are trying to help.


  1. You hit the nail directly on the head..."I'm in my wheelchair; I must need the dollar."

  2. How disempowering that must have been.

  3. Patronizing charity smh - when will people learn? Excellent post!

  4. Wow. Sorry that happened.

  5. OMG. WTF. I'm speechless.

  6. Absolutely! Well said!

  7. I get it all the time too. I don't understand it.

  8. Anonymous11:22 PM

    All those little helpers out there. Reminds me of Buddhist saying, "Why are you angry at me? I never tried to help you."---Zha

  9. Anonymous11:12 AM

    Once, I happened to be standing around chatting with a friend of mine while we were on the platform at a subway station waiting for the train to pull in. Just minding our own business. This woman who neither of us had ever seen before in our lives suddenly comes up and offers my friend a penny. Yeah, not even a dollar, just a frigging penny. My friend takes the penny with a sort of resigned expression while the woman goes into this sort of pious excasty as if she has just done a really beautiful and incredibly generous thing that will transform her life forever and bring her closer to God and yada yada blah blah. Or something. I don't actually know what she was thinking, but from her expression it was clear that she thought that giving the penny to my friend (a stranger from her perspective) was this really awesome and incredibly moving, touching act.

    After the woman goes away, still smiling piously as if she has experienced a marvelous, miraculous moment, I turn to my friend and basically go, "WTF?!?" My friend explains to me that this happened because she rides a wheelchair, and that this sort of thing happens all the time to wheelchair riders. I asked why she didn't refuse to take the penny, and she explained that sometimes it's easier to just take the "donation" and carry on rather than argue. (Just to be clear, I'm not trying to promote her approach to you ... or your approach to her ... I realize everyone has to pick and choose their own battles, no one can fight them all, and different people will make different choices when to fight and when to just give in and save their energy for some other battle. As a deaf person I know the choices I make about when to fight and when not to aren't always the same as what other deaf people make either. So I don't describe her reaction with an agenda in my mind, just saying what happened.)

    I do have a much better understanding now just how commonplace this kind of incident really is in the lives of people who use wheelchairs, but at the time this was my first real-life exposure to it. Now I'm no longer surprised when I see my 500th story on the internet like this one (where do all these stupid, patronizing people come from?). But back then, it was a new, mind-blowing concept that not only do idiots do this sort of thing, but that it happens so often that my friend barely registers it unless I ask about it.

    Sometimes I wish I could go find that woman and tell her, "If you're going to be that patronizing about giving your 'charity', how about giving a sum that, you know, could actually BUY something? Like, say, a million dollars. Not a penny, for cripe's sakes!"

    But, yeah, even if she HAD given something more meaningful from a financial perspective (okay, no one gives a million bucks to a random stranger in the street, but say it had been $5), the whole exchange still would have been creepy and patronizing.

    Slightly different but very related topic: Have you ever seen this series of videos made by a UK comedian with CP about precisely this topic? He does this "psychological experiment" on video where he solicits change from random strangers, experimenting with different approaches to see what it takes to make people finally STOP giving him their their change. My recollection is that people were still giving him change even when he was claiming that he was going to use it to go out and kill puppies!

    Andrea S.

  10. I get this kind of thing all the time! It puts me in a terrible mood.

    'STOP PATRONISING ME!!' I want to say.

    I was in a museum the other day. A staff member came up to me 'hello dear, how are you. I do like to come up and talk to people in wheelchairs, because it's very important isn't it? Most people don't, they just talk to the people around you so I always try to do so. Can I ask are you in the chair permanently? No? Oh well that's fantastic isn't it. You're so positive.' I had no idea how to respond other than to glower. It's just so rude! She got to go off and be proud of herself that she'd been nice to the disabled person. I just felt pitied.

  11. I can totally relate to this.. People can be amazing. I admire the detail in your writing!