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The power of helping

One of the manifestations of ablist prejudice is that disabled people are seen as unable to help others, always the ones receiving help. They don't acknowledge our skills and abilities as being something that someone else would need. But, in fact, we are perfectly capable of offering help to others, whether other disabled people or non-disabled people.

One of the more intriguing aspects of volunteering, if you are disabled, is the change in perspective. You are the one offering help. I worked at a local food pantry for some time, and I remember how people's voices changed when they talked to volunteers. They bent their bodies down and forward, as though bowing to us. They spoke softly and pitched their voices up just a little, as though pleading. They were sending these submission signals. Not everyone did this, but it was common among those who were newly unemployed, or had recently lost a source of income, who were ashamed at having to ask for help. It seemed obvious that they had been taught for a long time that if you asked for help, you were socially inferior. The ironic part was that at the time I was a volunteer at the food pantry, I had also been a client for several months.

Sometimes when people thanked me so profusely, often asking what they could do, I would answer them literally, replying, "Well, we can always use volunteers," and explaining that they could arrange volunteer hours by calling our phone line. It was a way of saying that my own position was something that was open to them too; that they were powerful enough to help simply for having two hands and the will to do so. And it's not just an encouraging lie; it's true. A society works best when people both help and are helped. It's the low-income people who know this best, because we know what it is like to need help, and we understand that others who need help may not get it if we don't step in to do something.

One of the most empowering things you can do is to help someone else. And one of the best ways to do it is to help that person become more powerful themselves. If you are disabled, you are in a unique position to know just how it feels to be powerless, and just how stigmatized people are for seeking help. To give help yourself, and then to make it very clear that you are giving help as a neighbor helping a neighbor and not as a potential overlord, you are shattering many ideas that have probably been thrown at you for a long time.




My son is a young adult in a group home. When he moved in I realized that "community outings" involved putting everyone in a van and going to Dunkin Donuts... so after some rather assertive advocacy I convinced them to volunteer with the Parks Department... soon other residences were also volunteering. Two take-aways: the guys painted and rehabbed a lot of the fixtures - picnic tables, and the outdoor stage. one day, while painting, two elderly gentlemen, out for their constitutional, walked by, checking them out, then walked by again... one of them asked me "What's wrong with them?" my answer: "Nothing - they're perfectly normal young men with autism." The gentlemen mulled that one over, then one said -"They don't teach nobody how to paint properly any more..." walked over, and started showing one of the guys, hand over hand, how to lay-on and lay-off. Now THAT'S a community outing. Parks let them use the stage they painted - and our show, based loosely on spring and baseball (Rites of Spring meets take me out to the Ballgame, with a bit of Grieg thrown in...) was wonderful - we all had a blast, parents and staff kept saying they never thought they could do that kind of thing (feh on self-fulfilling prophecies, say I!) So that's personal experience... there are reams of academic studies on this also - notably, the "recovery" approach to mental health interventions. Happy New Year!


That sounds like it must have been a lot of fun!

I've had a job painting walls, which lasted about two months. I was always the person they asked to do the very detailed small parts, because I work very, very precisely. Also relatively slowly, but as I learn a job I speed up toward average, so it all evens out. :)

Donuts may be nice, but eating donuts doesn't count as an outing, does it?

Keep telling them your son gets to do useful, interesting stuff that he likes to do. Because he's an adult. Not an eight-year-old who can be pacified with sugar.


This is what we don't like when u tell us.

Oh it is great that you agree with this. I know that its hard to belive on this but u did and wrote a good post.