Verbal Scripts for Unwanted Offers of Help

A black and white image showing a London double-decker bus. The ramp is out, and a white person in an electric wheelchair is driving down the ramp forwards
Me exiting a London bus in my electric wheelchair – Benjamin Gilbert // Wellcome Collection

I can’t leave the house without encountering disableism. People always presume I’m needy, childlike, tragic, dependent. They speak past me, speak over me, and ignore me. Rarely does anyone engage with me as an independent adult, unless to ask questions about the wheelchair. In those questions, my life is framed as a tragedy.

I never know how to answer people when they insist on offering help. I don’t want to give too angry a response to a comment, when someone means well, I don’t want to escalate situations. I hate arguments. I want a reply firm enough to convey my meaning, not firm enough to get me shouted at.

In order to achieve this, I’ve developed a series of verbal scripts – statements I’ve learned in advance to help me deal with situations I’m struggling with. One of those is when people insist on helping me.

When people offer me help, sometimes they are nice, kind, genuine people, who just want to support me. In that case, they won’t mind when I turn down their offer of help, and it won’t matter whether I used a script or not. The scripts are designed to help me turn people down politely (therefore not upsetting well-meaning people), while being increasingly clear with people who are offering to help for other reasons and would get offended if I said no.

In order to understand how to turn those people down effectively, it’s useful to know why they’re offering.

If it isn’t just to be nice, or because I looked like I needed a hand, the reasons are related to people’s own self-image. They want to be seen as physically strong, and offer to lift me even where that’s impractical and dangerous for both of us. Or they want to be seen as kind and caring, and want to help me so they look like a good person. When I refuse help from one of those groups of people, it means, I’m undermining how they see themselves, refusing to let them play out their psychodrama on my body. They then react badly – get offended, huffy, upset, shouty.

My scripts are designed to avoid that. They let me refuse someone’s offer increasingly firmly, but hopefully without getting me shouted at.

If you’re reading this, you might be wondering whether this means you shouldn’t offer to help someone. I’m inclined to say you should offer, and just be willing to accept a “no” gracefully. But before you offer, look at the person and see whether they look like they need help. If I’m sat using my phone, I’m fine. If I’m straining to reach something, I could use a hand. Just don’t assume people will want your help, and don’t be upset if they refuse.

First stage

At this point the person has offered to help, but hasn’t grabbed me or forced the situation. My scripts putting the refusal of their offer first, to stop them deciding to help anyway, but are polite and appreciative.

“Do you need a hand with that dear?”
“No thank you, I’m fine on my own”

“Could you use a push up the ramp?”
“I can manage on my own but thank you for offering”

“Do you want me to pass you that?”
“No thank you, but could you please [do something else instead]”

Second stage:

At this point the person has insisted on trying to help after I’ve given them a first-line refusal, or the person has grabbed me/my chair without asking (or at the same time as asking). I’m prepared to be a lot firmer but I still want to be polite and I don’t want to antagonise them.

[person grabs my chair to push me up a ramp]
“Please don’t grab my chair. I appreciate you trying to help but it could be dangerous”

“But are you sure you don’t want me to pass you anything, it wouldn’t be any trouble”
“I don’t need your help but it was kind of you to offer”

Third stage:

Here I’m no longer trying to be polite – the grudging “thank you” is an effort to smooth over once I’ve been firm, but isn’t said in an appreciative tone at all. I’m being as firm as I get.

[person keeps pushing at my chair, I disengage the joystick to prevent them pushing me any further]
“Let go of me. This is very dangerous. Stop pushing my chair. It won’t move until you’ve stopped pushing” [when they stop] “thank you”

“It’d only take me a minute to help you, really”
“I’ve said that I don’t need any help. I can manage on my own so please let me do that. Thank you [at this point I turn or drive away a bit]”

Fourth stage:

At this point I’ve been very polite, then increasingly firm, and the other person is either putting me in danger or behaving in a ‘harassing’ fashion. I decide to try to get the public on side, because the person isn’t leaving me alone and I worry that any further refusal could turn them against me.

“This person keeps trying to push my wheelchair and it’s going to cause a serious accident.
[turn to the person] “I’ve asked you several times to let go of me. Let Go.”

“This person keeps following me even though I’ve said I don’t want their help. Please make them leave me alone”

When I give this series of responses I quite often end up with someone offended, despite my best efforts to avoid that. Generally, I just ignore them. If they say “humph, I was only offering to help”, I just let them say it. Nothing would be gained by starting an argument, and I prefer to ignore them from this point onwards. I know physically I’m very vulnerable and I don’t want to take that risk.

Do you struggle with people insisting on helping you even when you don’t need it? How do you persuade them to leave you alone without getting into a public row?

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