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Editorial Notebook

What Are We Buying Into?

By Molly Hennessy-fiske

The prim well-dressed woman slowly swept the cane back and forth over the sidewalk, feeling for the curb. Obviously blind, she seemed unsure where the side walk ended and the street began. I approached, thinking I would offer her an arm. An elderly gentleman beat me to it, taking her arm and offering to take her across the street.

Violently. the woman shoved him away screaming "Crazy man! What kind of a world is this where a crazy man thinks he can help a lawyer across the street!" I was aghast at her response. In elementary school disability awareness sections I was taught to offer help to blind people, and how to do it. We learned how to recognize a blind person (dark glasses, canes, seeing eye dog) and how to lead him or her across the street on our arm. The programs--which I assume were shown to all public school students in Massachusetts if not the country--said our offers would be met either with grateful acceptance or a gracious decline.

Were the man and I both mistaken to assume she wanted help? Would she rather we didn't offer? I do not regularly see sight-impaired people walking without a friend or seeing-eye dog, so have never tried to help. To my eyes, he had done no more than reach out to someone who was obviously impaired. The woman implied that this instinctual kindness was odd and insulting. The incident I saw on the street scared me. I wish the woman had felt comfortable accepting the help. I congratulate her for being a lawyer and don't doubt her success in the field. But navigating Harvard Square--its traffic and intersections--is very different than pacing a courtroom. I would think her success could be attributed in part to a confidence that allowed her to accept help.

Our civilization acknowledges that all citizens operate at different levels of physical ability. We provide social security and Medicare to those no longer able to work. The handicapped use special ramps, restrooms and close-captioned televisions. The government's considerations indicate that individuals are correct to offer help.

I would like to think that some day when I am old and infirm, young healthy people will offer to help me across the street, give me their seats on the bus or carry my groceries. To offer help is a mark of respect, not an insult. To offer such help in no way implies that I am better than another person, or that she could not help me as well, with skills that I do not possess.

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