Tom Shakespeare

Everyday, I need help.I loiter by the supermarket display, waiting for someone to come by, so that I can ask them to reach something down from a high shelf. Or maybe I need someone to push me up a steep slope.

Do you think you are a good helper? I hope you make yourself available, but wait to be asked. I hope you can accept that I know best what kind of help I require, and how it should be given. I hope your help is not the kind that comes with moral disapproval or intrusive curiosity. You are entitled to thanks, but please do not expect endless gratitude, just because you passed me a box of anchovies. Don’t use helping as a way of feeling better about yourself.

Forgive me if I sound bitter. It is not easy, needing help. Most people would prefer to be independent. Of course, nobody can survive alone. Everyone needs help in some way. But us disabled people tend to need more help than others. If we are always the ones on the receiving end of help, it can become demeaning, and we resent having to be dependent. Sometimes, we struggle on alone, rather than admit our need for assistance.

Recently, I was in a restaurant with work colleagues for a leaving party. We all ordered pizzas. When they arrived, mine was the only one cut it into slices. Now, as a wheelchair user, I have powerful arms and strong fingers, probably stronger than my companions. The chef was being charitable – but it was unnecessary, even humiliating.

The right help – voluntarily given and gracefully received – oils the wheels of social interaction and empowers people who are disabled or elderly to participate in everyday life. The wrong help can become a form of tyranny.