In the 1980s, during the summer, I was an instructor for State University of New York College at Cortland for their 2 week Outdoor Practicum a course required for all Recreation and Leisure Studies majors. The students stayed at Camp Huntington on Raquette Lake in the Adirondacks which is owned by the College. During the first week students were taught outdoor skills they would use the following week. When the instruction was finished students were placed into groups of 8 to 10, assigned a staff member and then taken on a 6 day wilderness experience where they used the skills they had learned. Travel was almost always by canoe, portaging between lakes.
One summer I had a young woman assigned to my group who was legally blind. Prior to our trip she and I met privately to discuss what her expectations were for the experience. I had noticed while we were in camp she could be very defensive and abrasive at times when others tried to assist her. I felt she failed to grasp that they were only trying to help. She was very upfront with me about being allowed to do things herself. We agreed that I would not step in to help unless she asked for assistance. In return, she promised to do whatever I asked of her immediately and without hesitation. There were some potentially dangerous pitfalls on the route where immediate compliance might be necessary for safety.
The trip we devised would incorporate an opportunity for her to use as many of her senses as possible. We climbed down to Raquette Falls so she could feel the spray from the rapids on her face and listen to the roar of the water. We climbed a mountain called Ampersand near Middle Saranac Lake. The climb is very demanding and lasted several hours even for able-bodied individuals. The trip proved to be a great success and I remember to this day her telling me on the summit of Ampersand, “Now I know I can do anything if I put my mind to it.”
How ironic that I now find myself in the same situation with people often offering to help me do whatever it is I’m trying to do. It’s been my observation almost everyone’s gestures are well intended. Most want to convey their empathy, but sometimes I have to remind myself of that. They don’t realize their effort could be misinterpreted as, “I don’t think you can do things for yourself”; for example, when a waitress asks my wife what I would like to order, implying I am totally incapacitated by my disability. When I talk to a group I always drop a piece of paper on the floor. Ninety-nine percent of the time someone moves to pick it up for me. My wife usually intercedes to stop them. When I’m ready, I pick it up using my paper-pick-up tool. I drop a bottle of soda, a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, a book and one by one pick them up; in public schools the audience usually applauds. I tell them these are not tricks but rather ways that I have developed to function independently. I like to say disability does not mean inability. People need to understand that members of the disabled community are not totally helpless. And members of the disabled community need to remember people offering to help only have the best of intentions. So remember to tell people, “If I need help I’ll ask.”