The photo is of a blonde woman at
her desk who is obviously a professional helper.
Her smile is as perfect as her hair, and given with such insincere energy
that it almost creates a halo around her.
the fangs of help
waiting for a red light to change
a fellow came up from behind
me and "helped" me, grabbing my wheelchair handles, pushing me across
the street. I heard him say from over my shoulder that if only I would
put my faith in Jesus, the good Lord would help me walk again.
I called back over my shoulder that
Jesus better ask if I even want His help. Then I took one more step
over the line, telling him that maybe Jesus could help make him white.
I'm oversensitive about help I don't ask for. I used to do it for a
living, so I know.
studying to be a social worker, I landed a part-time job as a hospital
orderly. I saw myself earning humanitarian brownie points for helping
those people. I bragged to my friends about how I helped patients bathe,
dress, toilet, feed. They couldn't do it themselves. I did it for them.
When my friends told me how saintlike I was for laying my healing hands
on the untouchables, I glowed.
where I developed The Smile.
workday started when the nurse handed me the duty list. It was my
job to do what was on that list and also to answer the call lights.
I pitied those poor people. They needed my help. I had to do something
to make their lives better: adjust the bed, reposition them, open
the curtains... and never know or ask if that's what they wanted at
the duty list was helping the patients. Answering call lights was
not my idea of help. When I saw a call light flash above a patient's
door, dread and fear came over me. A call light meant that a patient
wanted something unknown, something not on the duty list, something
I might not know how to do, something I might not want to do.
a patient dared ask for any of the above, here came The Smile. Tilting
my head 35 degrees to the right, I contorted my face into a large,
painful, cheek-to-cheek smile, exposed my teeth, glared at them and
said "I'll help you in a little while. Other patients need me right
now." Then I could get back to the real helping.
reduced suffering and made me feel good. After I had finished acts
of help, I waited like a vulture for expressions of gratitude. I'd
helped, hadn't I? When thank-yous weren't forthcoming, it was clear
to me that those people weren't even human enough to be grateful.
get the thanks I deserved, I sometimes stood over the bed, behind
The Smile. In a scolding-wheedling tone I'd ask, "Now, aren't we forgetting
make me get the nurse.
ever a patient refused my help,
I'd use The Smile. Behind it, I hid what I truly felt, disgust: You're
pathetic. You make me uncomfortable. Helping you eases my discomfort
about your existence, earns your gratitude, and gets me out of your
room, quick. You say you don't want my help? Then I'll just have to
make your life miserable.
could anyone refuse that smiling face?
anyone did, I'd lean over their bed again, smile more forcefully, and
say, in my best holier-than-thou voice, I'm sorry but, Doctor's orders,
you know. Smile.
Don't make me get the nurse. Smile.
It's for your own good. Smile.
If you ever want to go home, you'll let me do that. Smile.
the tables have turned.
I'm a gimp at the mercy of folks
who help without asking what I want. By now I should know better, but
I still don't seem able to resist the impulse to jump in and help. My
roommate, Josh, is another quad, a higher quad. He's been a second class
citizen for about a year now. When I see him reach into the fridge for
a can of soda, struggle forever to grab it and take it out, I feel uncomfortable.
takes, sometimes, two or three attempts. Josh may even drop a can on
the floor where he can't reach it before he gets the can to his lap.
Then he has to get it to the counter where he takes another five minutes
to open it.
drives me nuts. So, I jump right in and do it all for him, without asking.
When I jump in with help, I'm not thinking about what Josh wants. I
know what he needs: help!
help is difficult, even in a more formal relationship. I had an attendant
who kept wanting me to have French toast for breakfast. It was his
specialty, see. I told him from day one that I have an espresso and
bagel for breakfast. I didn't want French toast. He insisted. This
went on for four days. On the fifth, after my shower and dressing,
I rolled into the kitchen only to see him sauteeing the French toast
I didn't want.
was just trying to help.
Page, who edits Disability Life and Handicapped Coloradan,
tells how a homeless woman begged him for a buck. When she saw that
Homer was blind, she refused to take the dollar. Her pity was more
powerful than her need.
lesson: Even if you're so bad off that you have to beg on the streets,
you can't let a cripple help you. That's lower than low.
actual help. What about that?
have plenty of friends who live in non-visitable houses.
Some offer to help me get in by hoisting me over their shoulders, doing
a fireman's carry. They consider it preferential treatment. I ask them:
if the Queen arrived for dinner, would they show their respect by throwing
her over one shoulder, huffing and puffing her up the steps?
I used to allow this "special handling" just so I could visit my friends,
just to fit in and not be left out. No more. I've been dropped too many
times. If friends really want to help me, they'll put in a ramp.
ramp? Do I expect a ramp to magically appear everywhere I go? People
say that's not realistic. That's when I ask them, "Would you live somewhere
black folks aren't allowed?" Well, would you? Then I smile The Smile.
had the benefit of professional training. Smile.
Joe Ehman made Mouth's
acquaintance in 1995 when he came calling at the
Mouthhouse to straighten us out about Jerry Lewis and the
MDA. He'd read some terrible things we'd written about
both. He was, that year, the local MDA chapter's "Person
of the Year." (That's what MDA does to honor grown-up
As usual, the Mouth was
up to something urgent, so Lucy dumped a couple of reams
of info on "Jerry's Kids" into Joe's lap and said, "Here.
See what you think." He did.
Important to note: When
Joe returned to his MDA chapter office and asked a few
pointed questions, they stripped him of his "Person of
the Year" designation. That's when he came to work at
Joe Ehman today works
at the Atlantis Center for Independent Living in Denver
Colorado, and as an organizer for Adapt, Not Dead Yet,
and the Freedom Clearinghouse.
He's wearing an Adapt hat and
a pair of those cool black wheel-
chair driver's leather gloves.
The photo is by Tom Olin.
this 'Visitability' Joe talks about? Click here to see about
the Visitability Video we sell in our online catalog
click here to read Laura Hershey's column about the
visitability of a friend's home.
read a poem which was written to a professional helper like
the one shown above, click here.
But beware this
poem. It's got one word in it -- lots of times, too -- that
you can't say on TV, the one that rhymes with tit. Don't go
there if blunt language upsets you.
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