Independence, interdependence, and the community

18th May 2020

Do you need help?

Seems like a straightforward question to ask or receive. But is it? Have you ever hesitated to lend a helping hand for fear the receiver will take offense? Surely you have been in a position where you would have loved some help but were afraid to ask? These dilemmas may be more common than you think. After all, we inhabit spaces that value independence. And that notion of independence can get twisted with our notions of ableism.

One of us knows a technology professional who uses a wheelchair. She enjoys her independence but also appreciates help at the workplace and within her home. She can work using her assistive technologies but could do with some help getting food at the company cafeteria. Modern public transport makes her commute easier, but she would appreciate help navigating ancient potholes on the way to the metro. She notes that her colleagues and friends are almost afraid to ask her if they can help her because they assume she would like to always be independent. (Even when she is visibly struggling a little bit.) It’s not like she works alongside sadists from a bad office comedy who enjoy schadenfreude a bit too much. They do help when the task at hand is obviously onerous. It’s the actions on the boundaries that we don’t all know how to react to and that end up making us look awkward and uncomfortable. For example, if she were to reach for something on a visibly high shelf, colleagues would readily lend help, but if she were rolling up a gradient, her colleagues would not know if to offer help. On her part, she does not want to appear vulnerable, lazy, or high maintenance. Most importantly, she is afraid to ask fearing the disruption of the expectation of independence.

Independence, however, is enabled not only through assistive technologies, but also through the support garnered from relationships. Independence coexists with collective interdependence. In fact, independence is assumed and exercised because of the security one derives from trusted interdependence.

Interdependence is not just for someone with an impairment.

We all have different abilities and find ourselves in situations we have not mastered. Maybe I need help with mathematics and statistics, and maybe you need help with changing light bulbs. Is it a stretch to posit that for anyone to be independent in today’s world, they must depend on someone for something?

We all fight stereotypes, we all function based on unstated assumptions, and we all have things we need help with. We need to think deeply about interdependence and independence (with its attendant implications about ableism). We need to engage with the what the word independence means in our communities. We need to speak about access and ability within our families, our workplaces, with our caregivers, and within the larger community.

Next time you think about receiving or offering help, remember that each one of us benefits from committed interdependence. Sustainable communities are not possible without it.

Do you need help? It can be an easy question to ask, and we need to think if it is being asked enough.

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