Friday, July 6, 2007

If I were disabled, I'd - play checkers?

I once saw a cartoon. There was an amputee, without arms or legs, in a cart in front of a building. A man walking by had put a dollar bill in the amputee's mouth and he was saying "And I don't even get a thank you?"

This image reminded me of the confusion that occurs when well meaning people attempt "helping" people with disabilities before even asking if they want help - or how they want help. Over the years I've had people who showed up to help - only to assume things and then proceed to "help" in various ways that were not helpful.

If anyone is thinking that "the charity case" model no longer exists, let me assure you it's alive and well. It's rampant among volunteers and even in many social service agencies (other than those who have worked really hard to switch over to a "consumer directed model"). While there are exceptions to the charity case model, I've run into it many times over the years. It's a frustrating and often demeaning experience, one that I steer away from at all costs now that I can spot it.

The problem with the charity model is that it creates a trickle down system. Basically, the giver defines what he/she gives and the recipient takes it. Like the little old lady who is taken across the wrong street by a well meaning Boy Scout, the recipient often doesn't feel grateful because what is given may be inappropriate or unwanted - or even put him into a worse position than before. But the recipient is supposed to act grateful anyhow because the giver meant well.

When applied over and over again to the life of a person who is disabled and relying on help, this charity model is disastrous. I've seen it myself where volunteers come in and decide I need two hours of companionship or a game of checkers when I have work due the next day and, if I go along with this, I'll be up until 2 a.m. finishing what I have to do. I can have a pile of papers that need numbering - which would be a great way to be helped, but under the charity model, it's deemed inappropriate for me to pick a task. I've been told so many times.

"These people are giving up their time to come over and keep you company and you won't even play checkers with them?" I've been told.

Yeah, how ungrateful can I be?

In no way at no time do any of these people even see me as a person. I'm a "project". Even though I'd much prefer we spend the time doing other things - maybe grooming my fluffy cat - and things that I can't do because of my hand impairment , that never seems to work out. I know it's not as much fun as checkers, but we can talk while we do those things too.

As you've probably guessed, I no longer participate in programs that use the charity model. I know most disabled people don't. What is really help is when someone asks what I need help with. Of course, they're free to decline helping if they don't want to - and many do. They want to be helpful in their way, doing what they (I suppose) would want done if they were (which they're not) disabled.

Playing checkers.


bob said...

I've seen the same thing. There's a program here that has retired people help others out and those folks are down to earth. They roll up their sleeves and ask what I need done. I don't call them too often but when there's something I can't do and just can't afford to pay for, they're there. Don't know how I'd manage without them.

They "get it".

Kitty said...

After my husband left me when I became disabled, I ran into this . People offered to come over and help but I wound up entertaining them and stuff didn't get done. Luckily I got my divorce settlement and now I can get a few things done but that money won't last. I don't think people understand how frustrating it is when you can't do things and have to depend on them.

And to think I thought I was the only one going through this before I came to this blog. It's making me look around at things in a new light. @ @

Anonymous said...

I train teens as volunteers. You hit on an important point: objectifying the person rather than asking her what she needs as help. This is central to good volunteer training to have a person oriented approach. It can be difficult for some folks to get out of their "own head" or mindset, lay aside their expectations and really offer help but that's the core of a good and available volunteer.