A great many years ago, a lawyer named Louis Brandeis wrote:
“Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual … the right ‘to be let alone'"
He was an advocate of privacy and individual rights. He later joined the Supreme Court of the United States, authoring further thoughts on privacy. The underlying theme, in some estimations, is this "right to be left alone." The focus was often criminal in nature, and involved the Fifth Amendment.
As an aside, there was a recent decision by the Florida First District Court of Appeal regarding compelled access to a person's cellular phone. That is Pollard v. State, a discussion of both the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. There are worthy points of discussion there, which may be discussed in a future post. But, for today, the case is interesting in the context of Justice Brandies at least in assurance that privacy remains an unresolved topic under the law.
The "right to be left alone" is thus admittedly an issue under the law. But this post is actually about the broader, human interaction, right to be left alone. It came to my attention in a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) article Spikes - and other ways disabled people combat unwanted touching. It seems that there are people who perceive others as needing assistance. As good Samaritans, they are extending them a hand-up. However, the intended recipients do not necessarily want that assistance, and are offended that it would be foist upon them without even the courtesy of a verbal offer or inquiry. As a result, some are taking exceptional methods to discourage the Samaritans.
The first example cited by the BBC is a person who uses a wheelchair. She describes going about her daily tasks when people will unannounced and uninvited grab her wheelchair by the handles and propel her "down the street." She notes that this creates a sense of losing "control over where you're going." She describes the sensation as "really terrifying." And, despite her resulting cries for help no other Samaritan stepped in to suggest to her assailant that they leave her alone. She says that since this incident the mere sound of footsteps behind her wheelchair brings feelings of anxiety.
Most of us can likely empathize with her feeling of helplessness. She illustrates it with an analogy. Essentially, how would any of us react if some pedestrian picked us up on the sidewalk and began walking away with us? As a result of her anxiety, and the helpless feeling of that incident, she has since "added metal spikes to the handles of her chair to make it harder for people to take control."
Another example cited by the BBC is a sight-impaired person using a cane to walk. Since she began using the cane, she noted "a significant change in attitude towards her." While she reveled in the independence that the cane brought, she laments that "she was being touched almost every day." People apparently thought nothing of reaching out to physically touch her, likely with the very best of intentions to aid and guide. But, she objected to it, and argues against it.
There is social media discussion of these well-intentioned interventions. They have coined the "hashtag #JustAskDontGrab." Their contention is that before one touches or helps someone, they should first announce themselves and verbally offer assistance. One source cited by the BBC contends that the urge to reach out is human nature, a "natural instinct to use their hands and not their words." A natural instinct that we must recognize and resist consciously.
Thus, there is a recognition that the unannounced touching is not "malicious or creepy, just dehumanizing." There is a perception that the manner of interaction does not match the intention. While someone means only to help, the perception and reaction may be unintended fear, anxiety, or demeaning. Another quoted source notes that there is also the potential for causing injury or damaging assistive devices such as wheelchairs. These may be expensive and specialized tools.
But, repeatedly, the sources in this article stress their approval of someone offering help. The verbalized recognition that someone might require assistance, and a simple offer are welcome by at least some. The spirit of the article suggests that even among those who would prefer to simply be left alone, these people would far prefer an unwanted verbal offer than an unwanted and unexpected physical touching.
What should we see when we perceive someone that is differently abled than ourselves? It is appropriate to recognize that people may be different from ourselves. That does not mean that we can appropriately make assumptions that they are in any way less abled than ourselves. Different does not equate to less or more. It is merely different.
As human beings, we are absolutely compelled to offer help to others. That may include people using assistive devices, but as readily can apply to anyone that we perceive could use a hand. Against this inclination, we must remember that conversely, every one of us has that "right to be left alone." From the conflict between these two, the best path forward seems to be an unassuming and genuine verbal offer of assistance. The decision then rests entirely with the offeree, to accept or decline your generosity.
And, finally, the process and result is personal, and as such private. If someone does not want assistance, that is her/his business. If our offer is rebuffed, that says nothing about us personally or about the offeree. It merely means that we did the right thing in offering, and the offerree did the right thing for her/himself either in accepting or declining. In that, we preserve our humanity, obey our natural tendency, and yet respect the "right to be left alone."
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