Swimming Versus Drowning

Waiting to cross my least favorite intersection, I was listening intently to the traffic pattern when someone approached. “Do you want some help?” a male voice asked.
“Yes, please. I hate this intersection.”

As the person walked with me across the street, he said, “I was hesitant to ask if you needed help. The last blind person I asked yelled at me.”

“They yelled at you?”


“Wow. I mean, sometimes it can drive us nuts if we don’t need the help, but yelling isn’t called for.”

At the sidewalk, we parted ways, but the conversation stuck in my mind. Several months later I was thinking about what I assume is a disability urban legend. A person in a wheelchair rolls to the edge of the surf, slides out of her chair, and moves out into the water, swimming. A man in a boat comes along and exclaims, “Let me help you!”

The disabled person looks up and says, “You may think I’m drowning, but this is the way I swim.”

The message of this tail is clear: what looks like failing to some is succeeding to others. The stranger so helpful to me must have earlier encountered a blind person who was seemingly having problems but in actuality was doing just fine.

As a blind person, the way I do things sometimes looks rather odd. Chopping vegetables is an excellent example. After the third time someone took the knife away from me, I learned to pave the way with a new person before starting. “You might not want to watch. It looks like I’m going to cut myself, but I won’t.” This preemptive strike saves me from feeling frustration when someone assumes dangerous when observing my well-honed technique.

To put it in a context more universal, think back to your childhood when you proudly presented your mother with the gift of a drawing. “Oh, honey, she said, “what a beautiful flower.” Your small child heart fell because you took three hours to depict Rex the family dog. It is an ego-crushing dose of reality.

Here’s the core of truth for me:An outsider is unable to truly judge success versus failure by observing. The parent cannot read the child’s mind and correctly interpret the intention. The sighted person cannot decide if the disabled person needs help or not. They have no context in which to judge whether a blind person waits at a corner to orient herself or loiters hoping someone appears who can offer assistance.

So, what’s the sensitive person to do? To avoid hurting their child’s feelings, parents fish for more information. “Wow, honey, this is great. How long did it take you to make it?” Unlike the person in the above urban legend, don’t assert your assumption that the disabled person is failing by what you say – ask “Do you need help?” not state “Let me help you.” And, unlike a child, a disabled person can attempt to exercise some patience and understanding, or at least save the rant for her blog.

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

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