Obviously Invisible

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I went to the grocery store today – thrilling, I know. But I don’t go often. It usually either falls on my husband or we order online for pick-up or delivery. But the dog was out of food this morning and we didn’t have anything planned for dinner, so I figured I could make a quick stop. It may sound silly but grocery shopping makes me anxious. Between the high shelves, navigating carts and getting everything back to my car, I prefer the online method of grocery shopping much more. However, this trip would be easy. We only needed six things of which only one I expected to be too high (damn dog food). No need for a cart – I would just use a basket – and I could even do self-checkout. It would be simple; It should have been simple.

I grabbed a basket and went on my way. I was actually feeling proud of myself (again, sounds silly) but it is the mundane tasks of everyday life that I accomplish on my own that bring a sense of normalcy to my existence. Sure enough, the dog food was on the highest shelf but there was someone close by who was happy to help. I quickly found all six items and went to check-out. I wasn’t feeling overly obvious or helpless – I was feeling confident.

I went straight to self-checkout and the lady pointed me to the one that was open. It was easily seen, but I suppose that’s her job. Then it went downhill. She followed me. I put my basket up on the shelf and pulled out my wallet to find my rewards card. She stood there, staring at me. I started to feel sweaty like I was under some sort of observation. I scanned my card and as I was putting it away she asked me if I needed help with anything. I smiled and said “No, thank-you. I think I’ll be okay.” She asked me if I was sure because she didn’t mind helping. I smiled again and told her that I should be fine. She was hesitant but said that she would be close by if I needed anything. I thanked her and, again, assured her that I would be ok. I could still feel her staring at me and my face felt hot and prickly as I carried on.

I took the first item out of the basket and moved my chair forward to get to the scanner. I needed to adjust the angle of my chair a little bit in order to reach the basket, the scanner and the bagging area. Apparently, a little chair adjustment was all it took for her to decide that I couldn’t proceed on my own. I had no sooner scanned my first item and was placing it into a bag when she appeared beside me and began scanning the second.

She stood between me and my basket and completely took over. In her attempt to help, she simultaneously made me feel obvious and invisible. I had been polite. I had told her I was fine. Did she not hear me or did she just not think my choice needed to be respected? Tears stung the back of my eyes and I refused to look anywhere but down. I felt insignificant. With two items left she told me to let her know if what she was doing bothered me. I wish I had. I wish I told her that I thought I had made it clear I didn’t need her assistance and by taking over without my permission she instantly made me feel like a child who wasn’t tying their shoes quickly enough. Instead, I froze. I said it was fine while continuing to stare at my hands. She walked away. I paid and left. The tears fell after I was safely in my car.

As I felt like I was accomplishing something today, a stranger felt like I was failing. She felt like I was incapable. And then, she didn’t respect my wishes. I stuck up for myself. I told her exactly what I wanted and she didn’t see it necessary to listen. Yes, I have a disability. But I am a grown woman, a mother and a person who has opinions and choice. As far as I know, the right to be heard – to be taken seriously – is not affected by a spinal cord injury. If only everyone understood that.

8 comments on “Obviously Invisible”

  1. I know what you mean.Im sorry about the situation and maybe next time you will speak up louder and more insistent. Then youll probably get “the look”. It’s like a lose lose situation.

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  2. You are not alone. I totally get this. Also add to it…if you had accomplished it by yourself her or someone else would have given you that very patronizing “way to go, you did it”. Like you are an effing toddler. Drives me mad. I’m sorry you were made to feel small you are not. To me you are amazing. From one paralyzed mama to another.

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  3. This sad and maddening story illustrates exactly why your blog is important, Codi–for 2 reasons. Telling your story so directly and frankly–working it through reflectively when the emotion has subsided a bit–might make it possible for you to speak up next time…(maybe). But also you are publicly giving voice to a perspective that is not heard enough and is so desperately needed. You are telling your own story, but you are also speaking for a whole community of people who live in wheel chairs. I totally get why you froze up in that situation–I would have too. We (women) are so trained not to give offence… but if you think of speaking up as educating that clerk rather than criticizing her, maybe it would be easier. If you could have said it to her the way you have said it in your blog (which was NOT criticism of her but a description of what her actions made you feel), would she really have been very offended? Maybe… but if she was able to listen, she would have learned something important, too. Keep writing–the world needs to hear your stories! 👏🏼

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  4. Maybe it would be an idea to contact the store manager from home and inform him that the ‘helpers’ at those checkouts should respect the wishes of the customer and not overstep their boundaries. I’m sure she meant well, but I can imagine you would feel demoralized at the same time.

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  5. You’re definitely not alone in this, and in a way it’s a lot like your post about holding doors open.
    It doesn’t bother me *that* much anymore, but there are moments – like you said, moments when I’m feeling a little exposed or vulnerable already – when that kind of fussy, busybody response feels like the worst insult and most personal and public judgement someone could make. From time to time, a stranger insisting on helping me and taking my choice and independence from me (even if I’m dropping coffee on the floor or taking extra time) just feels dehumanizing. To this day, the one thing that I refuse to ignore (and am very conscious about not doing this to other people) is ignoring someone’s NO.

    I used to avoid self checkouts for this reason – especially at Safeway or Canadian Tire. If you feel like it, I think your post is a very balanced bit of feedback for the manager of that grocery store and well worth sending to them. If it’s any consolation, the thing that took me years to learn myself is that people are always less conscious of you than you fear they are. At least that part of this problem, of the staff person making you more obvious and taking away your privacy by over helping, most likely goes completely unnoticed by everyone else in the store.

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    1. Thanks Jocelyn! I like your idea of sending this to the manager. I’m going to think about that.

      When it comes to the obvious piece. I was more thinking how I was blending in so well but to her I was obvious. But you’re right about listening to “no”. it is a good reminder for all of us to listen

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  6. Interestingly and so that you can understand the other side of the perspective I thought I could say this: I was brought up by our parents to help when ever we could. Basically our childhood was a constant parental instruction of: “can’t you see your sister needs help with that”, “don’t just stand there and watch while I struggle; help” “it is impolite to ask for help, even when you need it; so help even if the person is too polite to ask” and so on.
    Now as adults, I have gone through the huge learning curve to learn that help is not polite unless it is asked for. But I can tell you this: when I do not help someone (nowadays I never do unless they ask for it and they seldomly do) I feel such a quilt and urge to help that it is sometimes to the point of tears. It must be all in the way we are brought up I suppose.? I like reading your perspective because it reminds me that I am helping more by not helping; this still boggles my mind.
    I hope this shows the other perspective and a mutual understanding can be achieved.

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