Forget Kindness. Try Fairness.

I have always noticed and assess how I feel when someone helps me. Probably at the moment of my birth I had an opinion about the person catching me. In this blog, entries such as Is Approach More Important Than Act? and Why I feel How I Feel are just two cases where I dissect helping behavior and my feelings. Apparently my head is denser than lead because it has taken thirty-nine years to realize it is a question of kindness versus fairness.

Yesterday morning I attended a meeting of people who facilitate the discussion groups at my local LBGT Center. As you might imagine, that room was overflowing with kindness which is why I was shocked at the discussion surrounding a disability issue. A member of one discussion group seems to have a mental health condition whereby they are frequently off-topic and obsessed with Hot Pockets. I pointed out that this behavior could be a result of a cognitive disability beyond the person’s control and the facilitator could use some simple techniques to refocus the speaker. The touchy-feely response was that this person needed help and support beyond a peer facilitator’s scope and should be directed to counseling as an alternative to attending the group. Accommodating a trait based on disability in order to include a disabled person was rejected mostly because it didn’t “help” the Hot Pocket Obsessed Person with their perceived issues. I wanted to slap the kindness out of them and replace it with a sense of fairness.

At first distinguishing between an act of kindness and something done out of a sense of fairness might seem difficult. After all, both are based on an individual’s subjective assessment of what act fulfills the dictates of that particular situation. Being kind, however, involves going beyond what is necessary to do that which is exceptional. It is an emotion-based behavior revolving around empathy, sympathy, and sometimes commiseration. In contrast, fairness means simply doing whatever is needed to achieve a desired balance. The differentiating element is whether the person is doing what is required or choosing to do something extra, which means that kindness is optional and subject to personal whim.

When people help me out of kindness, I find myself gritting my teeth. How, exactly, can I take exception with a behavior motivated by such altruism? “Thank you for helping me shop for a gift, but becoming irritated when I wanted a specific color that was hard to find wasn’t helpful.” That would be an ungrateful response because the person was going above and beyond the call of duty. The same response given to someone acting upon a sense of equity transforms the statement into a topic to discuss and resolve.

I’m not disregarding kindness entirely. Obviously there is a place in the world for behavior based on empathy and a desire to be nice, but when an issue of disability accommodation becomes a matter of kindness, it relegates us to second class status. Suddenly the whimsicality of kindness dictates whether or not we receive what we need to fully participate in society. Far better to have it be an issue of equity that can be debated; a matter of logic and reason rather than the whim of an individual heart.

Today I joyfully participate in the sixth Blogging Against Disablism Day. Many members of the blogosphere, whether disabled or not, are letting their voices be heard on all aspects of what it means to be disabled. Go forth and read their contributions.

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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.

5 thoughts on “Forget Kindness. Try Fairness.

  1. Thank you Jennifer – great articulation of a difficult topic. I have a hard time depending on the kindness of others to assist me, but then I feel guilty feeling that way.

  2. Troy,
    I think we are taught to feel bad about needing help from others. I think the disability rights movement teaches another lesson about not feeling bad. It’s no wonder you feel guilty about feeling bad. It’s almost inevitable.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. No one likes to feel needy but everyone likes to be needed. Do people volunteer out of kindness? obligation? guilt? or if the situation was reversed that what they would want? I cringe at saccharin kindness but I appreciate sincerity. A volunteer tries to help alleviate the burden of neediness and gets to feel needed.
    My college student wants to start a peer assistance group for disable students. Someone he knows wasn’t allowed to have her guide dog on campus and was having a difficult time. He wants to provide a resource for disable student to help them acclimate to aspects of college other than academic. A group to share ideas and thoughts with as well as a network of volunteers to tap if something unexpected arises.
    He wants to do it right and with respect for challenges of students of various physical disabilities.
    Your opinion would be greatly appreciated as well as any suggestions or recommendations.

  4. Wendy,
    I would be more than happy to give you and/or your student whatever advice I can. It’s probably something best done via email. How can we make that happen?

    If a guide dog wasn’t allowed on campus I’m going to assume this wasn’t a U.S. school because they’d have to have been insane to deny a student access. If you are indeed outside the U.S., I would need to know a bit about how the school handles issues of disability. Is there an office that provides services? Are there government programs that provide disabled people with helpers? Is this a situation where disabled students are pretty much expected to fend for themselves?

    For me, there’s a negative implication with the word “needy.” “She’s needy, so I’m going to read to her.” feels different than “She needs me to read this to her.”

    If two people were offering me the same kind of help and one was doing it to be kind and the other because they felt it was fair, I’d take the help from the one doing it out of fairness because I’d be more likely to be treated respectfully and have the person follow through.

    Suggest your student start asking around to see what sorts of things the other disabled students need. I have experience running a group for disabled college students that mixed support and socializing with educating the students on various topics like how to talk to their teachers about what they need. Can your student tap someone with skills in group facilitation? Maybe a student in a psychology program?

    I’m full of questions, so we should figure out how to email.


  5. I agree, it’s good to fulfill a need because it is the right thing. But I actually was looking at neediness from the perspective of how I feel when I have depleted all my options and resources and still haven’t been able to resolve my problem. I think it’s one of the worst feelings in the world because it strikes at my feelings of self esteem too.

    My student is currently in the throes of approaching Final Exams. I will convey your message and a more direct means of communication can be decided upon. He will be very excited to have your input. He attends a UC.

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