Truth be told, no one is perfect. We all have our own limitations, weaknesses and insecurities. Some are just easier for strangers to identify than others. Personally, I am a horrid singer and an even worse speller. Neither of these challenges is easily noticed at first glance. Other challenges, such as someone in a wheelchair or being aided by a guide dog, are more readily identifiable. This brings me to our topic for this month, offering assistance.
I remember it like it was yesterday… Almost 15 years ago I was walking across Government Center Plaza during a snowstorm. For those readers unfamiliar with Boston, Government Center is an open field of brick occasionally marked with a random series of steps, surrounding our City Hall, which resembles a parking structure. During the summer, if you can bear the glaring sun, it is a lovely place since there is a perpetual wind tunnel blowing in from the ocean through the tall buildings. During the winter, there should be St. Bernard rescue dogs at the ready to help wary pedestrians traverse the space. In any event, I had bundled up to brave the cold and was about one third of the way across when I noticed a man using a touch-cane trodding through the snow. I had seen this man several times before; we commuted at approximately the same time. I had also heard this man snarl at people who told him to sit down in an empty seat on the subway. It was the end of the day, I was tired, it was cold and I really did not want to be yelled at by a stranger. But I could tell by the direction he was headed that he had been blown about 45 degrees off course and was headed the wrong way. I could not just pass him. I approached from the side, yelling over the wind to ask if he would like help getting to the subway. He turned to me and gratefully answered yes. I then said "OK, tell me what I should do." Even through the dusk of the driving snow, I could see him smile. Apparently, unwittingly, I had done a few things right.
Speak First ~ When offering help to anyone, the first question is always "May I help you?" If the answer is "no," move on. If the answer is "yes," the next question is "What can I do to help?" Unless it is an emergency, you should not touch someone without their permission.
Gentle Touch ~ When helping someone, understand your role. If you are guiding someone, a light touch is all that is necessary. If you are assisting someone with limited mobility, you may be helping them to support their own weight. If this is the case, you will need a stronger arm.
Necessary Narration ~ As you assist someone, it is appropriate (and even necessary) for you to talk through your actions. Let the person know what you are traversing. Any information you can provide about the terrain will be useful. Obstacles such as stairs, turns, crowds, traffic, and even surface changes (grass to pavement or carpet to hardwood) should be announced so the person can adjust accordingly.
Rolling Along ~ When helping someone in a wheelchair, first approach from the front. If your offer for assistance has been accepted, introduce yourself and ask if there are any special instructions. Periodically check in to make sure you are helping well. Upon arriving at the destination, ask if there is a particular placement they prefer, if there are any brakes that should be employed and if there is anything else you can do at this point.
Reading for Eating ~ When with a visually impaired individual, again ask if there is information you can provide. Some menus can be quite lengthy. Ask if there are any preferences (chicken or fish), or if there are any dietary restrictions of which you should be aware. This way you can read the relevant items instead of the entire document. When the food arrives, ask if he/she would like you to describe the plate. Imagine the person is looking at a clock. The steak is at 6:00, mashed potatoes at 9:00 and some green beans at 3:00. This will allow the diner to visualize where the food is as he/she proceeds to eat.
Pretty Puppy ~ It may be the cutest dog you ever saw, or you may really miss your pooch from home, but please remember that guide dogs are working and should not be disturbed while on the job. Of course, if it looks like the dog is confused or in need of water, be sure to ask the owner first.
We arrived at the subway station. The gentleman thanked me. I offered to escort him to the trains, but he declined. He said he knew his way. I often saw him commuting, but did not disturb his privacy. We all prefer to be independent. By offering your assistance before delving in allows the individual to maintain his/her dignity as an adult while still accepting your help.