Some Dos and Don’ts of Behavior Towards the Mobility-Limited

A little while ago, I made a Facebook “public service announcement” about how people should really try to help people who are by themselves in carrying a baby stroller up or down a set of stairs.

Admittedly, I was on one of my self-righteous streaks when I put such a post on Facebook. I wrote it after helping a mother carry a baby stroller (with a baby inside) up a set of subway stairs, even though many others came before I did and passed the mother by. So yeah…I was in a mood to show that the behaviors of those around me were just plain wrong.

Yes, I was pretty self-righteous.

Self-righteousness aside, this one incident made me start to think about not only the stroller issue, but also some other dos and don’ts of behavior (particularly behavior when you are out in public) toward the mobility-limited.

But what are some of those dos and don’ts? If you’re not sure, please keep reading, as I break down some dos and don’ts of behavior toward people with different types of mobility limitations.

Parents with Baby Strollers

If you don’t have any physical limitations, DON’T just stand idly by while watching a parent toil with a baby stroller with the baby inside. For those who haven’t carried one before, they are so heavy and bulky! When I’ve helped in the past, it was honestly a challenge even with two people working on it, so I could not possibly imagine it being a one-person job. So if you’re physically able to help, please offer to help (even if that means missing your train or bus).

So, DO offer to help if you see a parent (especially if without a second adult) with a baby stroller. The worst you’ll get is a polite “no,” and at best you might just make a person’s day by being the stranger who helps out.

Wheelchair Users

Please, for the love of everyone, DON’T DON’T DON’T push someone’s wheelchair without the wheelchair user asking for it. Especially through the blogging world, I’ve met oh so many people who are just pushed around on their wheelchairs without asking for help.

DO push or help someone in a wheelchair, though, if they ask for help. But the key is being asked to help, because otherwise your actions fall into the category of a “don’t.” Also, if you see someone struggling with a wheelchair, DO ask if they would like any help.

People with Canes and Walkers

If you see someone on mass transit with a cane or walker, it means that the person with the cane or walker needs it for some reason. Therefore, please please PLEASE DO offer to give up your seat to a person with a cane or walker. If you are able-bodied, that person will need the seat more than you do.

On the other hand, please DON’T take the action of refusing to give up your seat to a disabled person. Furthermore, DON’T spend 100% of your time in transit on your phone or asleep…because if you do so, then you will not pay attention and may end up blinding yourself to the fact that someone needs your seat much more than you do. (Trust me, I’ve been guilty of such an offense before…I felt very embarrassed when I found that there was a person with a cane in front of me who needed a seat more than I did.)

Conclusion

To some of us, the previous sections of this post only elaborate on obvious etiquette for being an able-bodied person who is a pedestrian or is taking mass transit. To others, though, maybe this post serves as a reality check that we are not really having the proper behavior when it comes to interacting with people of limited or no mobility. Regardless of whether this post listed obvious etiquette, served as a reality check, or was somewhere in between, please post in the comments section below if there are other dos and don’ts of behavior toward the mobility-limited that I should cover!

The Ableism of Western Masculinity

When I, and others, read definitions of what it means to be “masculine” in the western world, we get words like: active, aggressive, ambitious, analytical, assertive, athletic, authoritative, blunt, certain, competitive, decisive, dominant, forceful, independent, individualistic, physical, protective, self-reliant, self-sufficient, strong and tough.

Some of these meanings of masculinity are perfectly okay—being active, ambitious, analytical and certain, for example, can be positive traits in many circumstances.

Other traits are, in my humble opinion, traits that contribute to gender inequality and so many sexual assaults against mostly women—being aggressive, authoritative, dominant, and forceful come to mind. The topic of how some ideas of western masculinity contribute to gender inequality and sexual violence may very well be the subject for a future post, but I won’t cover this in my current one.

And then there are other “masculine” traits such as: active, athletic, independent, physical, self-reliant, self-sufficient, strong, and tough. These traits are ableist, or discriminating in favor of able-bodied people, at least to some extent, because men who have disabilities are then viewed as completely unable to fit these traits of what it apparently means to be a “true man” or “manly enough.”

Consider the following:

  1. If you are a blind person, you don’t fit into some people’s ideas what it means to be masculine. The definition of masculinity includes independence, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency, yet you need to depend on other people, animals or things to guide you.
  2. If you are deaf person, you don’t fit into what some think it means to be masculine. You need to depend on sign language from others or closed caption coming from a machine, so you therefore don’t have the independence, self-reliance, or self-sufficiency associated with masculinity.
  3. If you need a cane to get around (let alone if you’re in a wheelchair), you don’t fit into our society’s idea of what it means to be masculine. Regardless of what your level of activity is (and I know my share of people who are on a cane or in a wheelchair AND are actually quite athletic), you are often viewed as inactive, unathletic, dependent on others and weak if you use a cane or are in a wheelchair.

The bottom line is that if you are a man with some form of disability, that person likely does not fit the definition of masculinity. In fact, because masculinity is ableist, the very ideas associated with modern western masculinity completely exclude men with disabilities the “manliness club.”

So when I hear someone talk about “toxic masculinity,” I agree—masculinity is toxic. The ableism of masculinity makes masculinity inherently toxic.

Note: I want to thank the blog Me, Myself and Disability for bringing this issue to my attention. When I first discovered that blog, I read a post about the author’s own experiences with the ableism of masculinity. If you want to get a more personal perspective on the ableism of western masculinity, I highly recommend that you read his post on the issue.

Why Straw Bans Are About More Than Straws

In recent weeks, there has been debate about efforts by some companies (Starbucks, McDonald’s) and cities (San Francisco, Seattle) to ban the usage of plastic straws within their entities. Many environmentalists think it’s important to make sure that we reduce plastic waste and therefore reduce our usage of plastic straws, while many disability activists argue that there are currently no feasible alternatives to a single-use plastic straw.[1]

Personally, I think a ban must wait until there are feasible alternatives for people of all levels of ability. But I think this discussion on straws needs to be about more than straws.

Namely, we need to discuss our society’s lack of willingness to listen to the physically disabled, and the proposed straw ban is just the latest example of this.

Consider this—in spite of the fact that many disability activists (including many who have the lived experience of being disabled) have been raising concerns about such bans, the entities that planned to ban plastic straws are still going ahead. If we, as a society, listened to the disabled, wouldn’t we at least hear their arguments? Wouldn’t we at least consider for a second why they are saying what they’re saying? These, of course, are rhetorical questions, because in spite of many activists saying that other alternatives to plastic straws do not work, entities are still going ahead with their plans to ban usage of the single-use plastic straw.

Sadly, this pattern of not listening to the disabled goes well beyond straws. Here are a few of the many examples of parts of our society not listening to the disabled:

  1. Airline seats continue to shrink. In spite of many activists saying that airline seats have shrunk to the point that the disabled cannot get out safely in the event of an emergency, there are still successful attempts to shrink airline seats even further yet.
  2. We continue to view people with disabilities as inspirations. There have been oh so many times when people with disabilities have told others—in writing, in-person, through YouTube and through many other means—to stop viewing them as inspirations for just doing tasks in daily life that the rest of us perform.[2] If our society listened to them, then we would stop viewing these individuals as inspirations. But alas, many of us don’t listen.
  3. There are attempts to dilute the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Disability activists have, on many occasions, warned against any legislation that undermines the ADA, yet amazingly such legislation to weaken the ADA passed the House of Representatives earlier this year. If we listened to people with disabilities, such a bill would be in the garbage can, not passed in the House.

Not listening to people with disabilities is very much a pattern of our society. This pattern did not start with the straw issue, and I fear that it will not end with the straw issue. However, it is about time that we change and actually start listening to people with disabilities.


[1] Paper straws apparently disintegrate with hot drinks while metal straws are both inflexible and a safety risk because of how they conduct heat and cold. This NPR piece covers the issues with metal and paper straws much more thoroughly than I do in my post: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/07/11/627773979/why-people-with-disabilities-want-bans-on-plastic-straws-to-be-more-flexible.

[2] If you would like a more detailed explanation of why it’s a problem to just view people with disabilities as inspirations, I highly recommend reading this article from Everyday Feminism: https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/04/stop-calling-disabled-people-inspirational/.

Eight drinking straws in rainbow colors
I can’t think of anything more appropriate for a post involving straws than a picture of straws. By Horia Varlan from Bucharest, Romania (Eight drinking straws in rainbow colors) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons