Posted Monday, December 9, 2019 at 3:20 pm

At work during an affinity group meeting, I shared a story from back in college where a close friend offered me assistance. We were in our college café, and I was standing by the counter, squinting up at the menu hanging on the far wall. As someone with low vision, menus posted on walls are normally my unreadable enemy. My friend knew this, and while I stood there, she offered to read the menu to me. I replied that I didn’t need assistance that day as I was wearing my (very large, very magnifying) glasses instead of my less powerful but culturally more accepted contacts. She replied, “Oh, I didn’t even notice.”

I stood there kind of stunned. Having a physical disability means that you pretty much are always “noticed.” I turned to her and in that moment, felt a startling feeling of true acceptance. My friend accepted me no matter what shape my body was in, and I appreciated her for offering assistance as a default, even if it was unnecessary in that moment.

That’s a nice story, but it’s also one that can cause confusion. What came up in another meeting that week was another story from someone who attended a conference. They recounted a talk by a disability justice advocate at the event who said, “Don’t assume what people need. Don’t offer assistance without permission.” When my colleague heard my story, and then reflected on what they heard at the conference, they felt unsure of what to think.

I see where that disability justice advocate is coming from. For instance, it’s wrong to go up to a blind person you don’t know and take their arm to assist without asking. Or to start pushing someone’s wheelchair or mobility aid without their permission.  (Touching someone’s mobility device is like touching someone’s body. It’s an extension of their body. It’s also important to not touch people’s support animals.)

These dueling messages can lead to confusion, and can cause a mental “freeze,” which can stand in the way of being an ally to others.

To help break down that freeze, here are some general principles on how to navigate around situations where you think you would like to offer assistance, but are not sure how.

I welcome other recs as well if people want to share their thoughts.

1- The Bus Principle

You’re on a crowded bus. You have a seat. Someone gets on the bus. They are a person who is A) appearing pregnant B) carrying a small child C) using an assistant device like a cane or walker D) carrying heavy grocery bags E) is an elder F) is otherwise appearing like they could appreciate a seat on this crowded bus.

The ally thing to do? If you are in a place (mentally/physically) where you can offer your seat, the ally thing to do is to offer the seat to them.

What happens next? They may take the seat. They may refuse. They may give you a perplexed look. They may avoid looking at you. They may thank you. They may skirt away from you. Whatever the response is, it’s acceptable to offer your seat to someone else.

Offering assistance in general is similar to this crowded bus scenario.

  1. Look for signs that assistance might be welcome.
  2. Offer assistance.
  3. Accept the response that you get (negative or positive.)

Second analogy: Looking lost

Sometimes you’ll see someone looking at a map, appearing lost. It’s acceptable to say, “Hi. I’m familiar with the area. Would you like any assistance with finding something?”

If they say yes, it’s okay to offer assistance. If they say, “No, I’m good.” Then feel free to politely say, “Cool” and walk on your way.

Consent and Allyship

Both scenarios, bus and map, are about consent. That’s a crucial part of allyship when it involves helping someone directly. Does the person who you are asking want your help? Sometimes you won’t know that unless you ask.

Even in my college story, my friend asked if I wanted assistance first. (It would have been weirder if she just started rattling off the menu to me unprompted.) She asked for consent to help. I said no to the help, and we went on our way.

How full is your gas can?

One thing that affects your ability to be an ally and to receive allyship from others is the state of your own “internal” self. Or to use the Bill O’Brien quote, “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.” Another way to think about it is the spoon theory, but that is a theory/practice reserved for the disability community specifically.

If you have a full gas can- meaning your internal self is feeling pretty good and solid:

  • you may offer assistance, and someone refuses or even gets pissed off at you, but because of your current state (full gas can) you are able to not take it personally and move on.
  • someone offers unnecessary assistance to you, but your internal gas can is full, so you may be able to offer a light response like, “No worries. I’m good,” and not be leaden down by their unprompted offer.

If your gas can is low- you had a bad day, you’re tired, you’re hungry, 15 people that day offered you unprompted unnecessary assistance and you’re feeling frustrated. Then:

  • your response might be different to the 16th person offering unprompted assistance. Your response might be angry, or you might walk away without saying anything
  • Or you’re the person on the other side of the action- your offer of assistance to someone is rebuked, and because of your low gas can at that time, you feel even more awful, or feel frustration towards the person you wanted to assist, or feel like you shouldn’t try again in the future.

How we provide and receive allyship can be affected by where we are at that moment. That’s not a bad thing or good thing- it’s just something to try to understand, and because it’s not static, we have to “check-in” on ourselves regularly.

If you’re not up for receiving allyship, that’s cool. If you are feeling unable to provide allyship, that is also a reflection of your current state.

The next step is to just understand why you feel that way, and if your goal is to provide allyship to others, to self-interview about what it would take to help you get there.

What do you think? What has been helpful for you when receiving or giving allyship to others? Or are there helpful practices that you have experienced when asking for consent to provide allyship? Let us know in the comments below.

This post is a reprint of a piece that was originally published on the Fakequity blog on October 3, 2019.


Interesting read.  Thank you for taking the time to write this Tracy.  It's a good piece.  I did get a bit befuddled around the being rebuked stuff ?  I read it three times and I still kept getting the concept that if I seek consent to offer assistance and someone turns away from me or gets mad at me, that I should just be ok with this and that I need to rely on my own internal state to just be "ok" with whatever someone throws back at me.  But perhaps that is not what you meant?  I think we're deeply relational creatures and I don't think it's ok to rebuke someone who sought consent to offer to provide assistance no matter how tired and hungry one is.  To offer assistance can make one feel vulnerable.  To receive assistance can make one feel vulnerable. Giving and receiving assistance is hugely complex.  Keep up the amazing work.  

Submitted by Serafin Dillon on Mon, 2019-12-16 16:26

Tracy Timmons-Gray

administrator, backbone organization, community manager, funder of initiatives, partner organization, other, technical assistance provider / consultant, content administrator, blogger, funder community of practice

Great question, Serafin. Thanks for asking.

Something I think about is that not everyone will feel gratitude or patience when being offered assistance. They might actually feel anger or frustration at me, and maybe because of what's happened during their day, that frustration might come out in the form of a rebuke or just walking away. As the person offering assistance (allyship), I may not know what led to their feeling of frustration at my offer, but the goal for me would be to not take it personally, especially if the offer of assistance was to someone who I don't know. That's not always easy because it's not always easy to feel someone else's frustrations. (That's often why we offer allyship- to alleviate someone's hardship.) But what I think will be helpful to them in that moment may not actually be what that person is looking for. Thus the "gas can" analogy. If someone is feeling fine, and is offered unnecessary assistance, they may cheerfully wave it off, "No worries!" But if they've had a very bad day, and this offer of allyship taps into something negative for them, they may respond unhappily, and that's their right. The choice then is how I walk away as I have not received their consent for my offer of assistance.

I'll give you a personal example. As someone who has a physical disability, this often means I can "look disabled" to others, which means I receive a wide array of responses from strangers. Although I understand that unprompted offers are being shared with good intentions, they also often "break" me out of my daily mode. I'm going about my day (riding a lot of crowded buses), going to work, going shopping, thinking about the new Star Wars movie, etc, and this unprompted offer, although with kind intent, has just reminded me that to this person, I am looking "disabled," which for me personally, normally means I receive treatment like I am mentally or physically incapable of doing things that I am capable of, which is a sore button for me as a someone who grew up with a disability and who has faced that response a lot.

If my internal gas can is full, my response will be light and airy, and telling them not to worry. If I am feeling low, then their kind offer might make me feel terribly sad. Realistically, even with all my good intentions about wishing to be respectful back, I might just look sad and mumble something and walk away.

I totally agree with you about the shared vulnerabilities of the one who is offering assistance, and the one is being asked if they would like help. It's definitely a complex and nuanced space.

Submitted by Tracy Timmons-Gray on Mon, 2019-12-16 17:47

ahhhhh beautiful ! yes,  thank you; all your points have filled in the gaps for me - it all makes sense now - myabe you could consider adding these additions to your piece I think it could really add value and contextualise things so you don't have people like me asking you to explain it ;) I feel bad for asking you to explain it !  thanks again for your exploration, and for sharing, it is humbly appreciated 

Submitted by Serafin Dillon on Mon, 2019-12-16 18:30

Tracy Timmons-Gray

administrator, backbone organization, community manager, funder of initiatives, partner organization, other, technical assistance provider / consultant, content administrator, blogger, funder community of practice

No worries. Thanks for sharing your question. I appreciate it! :-)

Submitted by Tracy Timmons-Gray on Mon, 2019-12-16 20:28