The most frustrating part was that he didn’t ask me.
While the sun was melting away the icy traces of winter, and daring the world to adjust to the coming of spring, the adjustments that I was making had nothing to do with the weather. It was late February 1987 and I had just started my first semester at Emporia State University a few weeks previously. The prior few months had been difficult for me. Most of my friends had started college in the fall after graduation but I had unexpected surgery, and a long, grueling recovery. By the time I arrived on campus, I was healthier but significantly weaker than I had been in many years. The campus of the University is compact, making it ideal for wheelchair users, but it is also comprised of several significant hills. At the top of one such incline was the Plumb Hall, which housed most of my English classes. Since that was my major, I had to go to that building often. I struggled to get to the top almost every day, grunting and groaning like a linebacker about to make a tackle, but I never quite made it under my own power. It was always necessary for me to ask for help in order to get where I was going.
After a while, the hill became symbolic for me. I had it in my head that if I could climb that hill independently, I would be successful in my college career. Not logical, I know, but intensely personal nonetheless.
One day I decided it was crunch time. I sat at the bottom of the hill, willing myself to get to the top, and psyching myself up for the process.
“You can do this on your own. Go!” I started out. The hill between my dorm and Plumb Hall felt like Mt. Everest to me. I put my head down and my hands back, convinced that if I kept pushing forward, I would make progress.
“Keep pushing. Don’t stop.”
It became my mantra.
“Breathe,” I told myself. “Don’t stop.”
Suddenly, about halfway up, a guy came from behind me and started pushing me up the hill without a word. My heart sank. Just like that, I was defeated, and I had nothing to do with that decision. I had to swallow down the bitter taste in my mouth and the harsh words that would have expressed the frustration that I was feeling.
I know that the guy that pushed me up the hill was trying to do a good thing. His heart was in the right place. I don’t deny that. But here is the deal. He didn’t ask me what I wanted, and in the process, he took away what I was trying to accomplish. He wasn’t helping.
In the years since I have thought about that day many times and how I could have felt better about the interaction. Being that I was young and naive at the time, I wasn’t assertive enough to tell him that I didn’t want his help. If I had explained what I was trying to achieve, and he had responded by saying “good job, keep going”, then he would have been helping.
What did I take away from the experience? I feel the most respected when people offer to help and then wait for my instructions about exacting what I need. Why? I alone am the expert on my disability. Even though my strength can vary from day to day, I know what I can do and what I can’t. What I need might be vastly different than what an outside observer may see.
I completely understand that it is human nature to want to help someone who is obviously struggling. But overcoming the struggle can make a good day great for me, and when I finish something that I couldn’t do before, nobody can ever take that away. I need the power to make the choice as to whether I need help or I don’t. When the answer is yes, I need to be able to explain to someone how they can be the most helpful to me on my terms. When that happens, we can all get what we want and everyone can feel positive about the situation.
There have been many hills in my life since my days at ESU, and I am confident that there will be many more in my future. Some will be easy to climb, and some will feel like Mt. Everest to me, but those challenges are mine to overcome.
If I need help, I promise that I will ask for it.