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Kelly Brush: Here’s how to offer help — for the right reasons

I don’t often reflect on how people perceive or treat me because I have a spinal cord injury and use a wheelchair. We have built the KBF brand based on empowerment, capability, and quite simply doing things normally!
But I recently had an experience that gave me an opportunity to reflect on stereotypes, biases, and how I should react.
Here’s what happened. A couple weeks ago I was at a gas station pumping gas and looking through my owner’s manual for the type of oil to put into my car (an oil light had just come on). A guy (probably in his 50s) who was also getting gas came over and asked if I needed any help. I said no, that I was just looking for the kind of oil to buy to put in my car. A few minutes later I went in and purchased the recommended oil (5W-30 for those keeping score at home) and was on my way back to my car. My plan was to have Zeke put the oil in later that evening when I got home. The same guy came up to me and said, “Are you sure you don’t need help? I don’t want to be presumptive but just want to be sure.” I thanked him for offering help but said I was going to put in it later so I was okay.
A few minutes later while driving home I began to think: was he offering me help because I was in a wheelchair or because I was a young female. My first thought was, if he was offering help because I’m a young female then should be pissed (how sexist!) but if he was offering because I’m in a chair then I kind of appreciate the sentiment.
Which made me wonder, why would I accept the stereotype of being helpless because of my disability that I wouldn’t accept because of my gender?
I often get offers of help for things I do every day, such as getting my chair in or out of my car, opening doors, etc. I always appreciate the offer and most often decline (honestly, I can get my chair in my car faster and easier on my own than with someone helping who doesn’t know how to do it). And there are times when I do need help. I once dropped my phone and it slid under my car where I couldn’t reach it. I also will often ask for help reaching something on the top shelf at the grocery story. I recognize and accept that I have some physical limitation and there are times when help is greatly appreciated. I also find that it is much easier to accept help when it is offered than it is to ask for help, which is why I appreciate the offers of help even if I almost always decline.
The more I thought about it, the more convinced (hopeful?) I was that the man at the gas station was offering to help me because I was in a chair. But would he have offered if I were a guy in a chair? If not, then the gender question is problematic. I tend to think the best of people, so I’m going to stick with my theory that he was offering because I was in a chair for no other purpose than he thought I may not be able to reach the engine cap (which is true).
I often get asked how one should approach offering help. My advice is that I don’t mind being offered help but don’t presume that I need help. A quick, “Anything I can help you with?” is always sufficient but not condescending. I know it can be uncomfortable to offer or not offer help but the more you do it the more comfortable you will become. Just catch yourself before making any gender stereotypes, those are off limits!
This week’s writer is Kelly Brush, a pediatric nurse practitioner, mother, skier, biker, golfer, weekend adventurer and leader of the Kelly Brush Foundation. After sustaining a spinal cord injury while racing on the Middlebury College Alpine Ski team, she founded KBF to help other athletes with mobility problems.

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