This blog post caught my eye yesterday. The blogger, a wheelchair user, describes his conflicting feelings when an older woman in a grocery store ... a complete stranger ... spontaneously offered to pay for his groceries. He describes feeling that his reaction was not what he would have hoped, because he failed to turn down the woman's offer, felt angry and condescended to afterwards, and felt guilty for feeling uncomfortable with the entire scenario.
I have had people offer to let me go ahead of them in lines at cash registers, but I can't recall having anyone offer to pay for stuff I'm preparing to buy. I'm not counting the couple of times in recent years when someone ahead of me in line at a drive through has paid in advance for my cheeseburger and fries. I don't count it because most likely they didn't see me or know that I have disabilities. Also, I've learned that this is a thing people do nowadays ... they "pay it forward" by anonymously treating people they don't know, especially in drive-thrus. The people who do it feel it's a great way to spread happiness without taking selfish credit. Some people receive said happiness with good cheer, while others feel uncomfortable, or ... like me ... wonder if they'd be as generous when it comes to supporting tax-funded support programs like Food Stamps or Unemployment.
Those issues aside, disability can cast a different light on these situations, both for the would-be giver, and the receiver. As is becoming my habit when I'm not sure I've got an issue figured out, I'm just going to make some bullet pointed points about disabled people and "random acts of kindness":
• The whole dilemma is about three entirely different, in some ways conflicting factors that can all be active at the same time:
1. The desire to be kind to strangers, particularly those you perceive to need of kindness.
2. The real need some (or all?) people have for kindness and generosity.
3. The harm and discomfort that can come when social inequality is reinforced or emphasized by unexamined assumptions and lack of sensitivity.
• Actually, number 3 there is the real issue. The receiver is almost always just a little bit ... if not a great deal ... put off balance and made to feel uncomfortable, and unequal, by these out of nowhere gifts, especially when they are public.
• I don't think you have to be cynical to realize that random, unexpected, public generosity ... whatever positives may flow from it ... area actually quite likely to make a recipient uncomfortable. That should just be common sense.
• I'm not a big fan of the anonymous gift in the drive-thru line, but I prefer it slightly to the more public method, like what the blogger describes. Whether or not the woman meant anything but pure kindness, it comes off as a rather self-aggrandizing, attention-seeking gesture. The supposedly desired effect could have been achieved without causing a fuss, but she chose to make her gesture public.
• On the other hand, doing it anonymously almost completely removes the possibility of refusing, while asking first ... which the woman did ... at least makes it possible for the potential recipient to say, "You're so kind, but no, thank you, I've got it." It's the same principle as not immediately starting to push a wheelchair user up a hill, but asking first if they'd like some help.
• Probably the most important factor in a scenario like this is how the would-be giver accepts the turn-down. If they say, "Okay, just thought I'd ask. Have a great day!", then the whole thing becomes just a pleasant interaction, and nobody feels slighted or placed in an unequal position. If instead they insist, it quickly becomes obnoxious.
• If the intended recipient is obviously disabled ... in a wheelchair for example ... then one should assume that the potential for offense is quite high. Not because disabled people are more crabby than others, but because there are just too many ways the gesture can be misinterpreted. This is a good place to "check yourself". Ask yourself, "Why am I offering to buy THIS woman's coffee?" If the answer is anything like, "Because she's using crutches and must have a hard life", then rethink before you act.
• If we disabled people really feel strongly about unsolicited charity, and hate the imbalance it implies, maybe we could do something ourselves to restore balance. Why don't we start offering to pay for random, non-disabled peoples' coffees or groceries? It would be unusual enough that if enough of us started doing it once a week maybe, I'm sure it would make an impression.
I'd be curious to find out what others think. Click below to comment!
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