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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

When push comes to shove

I’m not sure why, but I second-guessed myself as soon I asked Karyna Richards if I could push her in her wheelchair up Trinity hill. It would be rude not to offer, right? Or maybe it would be rude to offer. How do you know? My instincts were correct: She didn’t want help. That was two-and-a-half years ago.

Now, a junior, Karyna can be seen being pushed around campus by her friends. What changed? Karyna explains: “Do you remember the showers last fall? How it rained constantly for about a month and a half? That, if anything, was what 'changed my approach' to navigating campus. I lived in Prassel last year, and since I had just declared Comp Sci (in Halsell, behind Chapman), I was walking the longest possible route through campus in the pouring rain. And much like driving, I have to slow down in the rain. I hated it. A lot. And that was the first time I had ever just asked somebody for help. Then I just started to get used to the shorter time it took to get to class. So now sometimes, maybe 50% of the time, that I am going to upper campus, I am secretly hoping that somebody will help me get there.”

Since asking questions is clearly not an issue for me, I recently asked Karyna about campus access -- related to assistance from others. “Let’s just be clear that we are talking about accepting help getting around campus. In that respect I was determined to not accept assistance,” Karyna explains. “I make the distinction because I have always tried to only accept help with things I truly cannot do myself, and to handle the things that I can. It was the way I was raised, and I still feel the same when I am not on campus. The fact that I am so obviously disabled means that people -- without thinking about it -- will see me in a certain way. Often, people see me as a bit helpless. Accepting help over and over only helps to affirm that idea in others' minds.”

According to Gavin Steiger, Coordinator for Disability Services on campus, asking people if they would like assistance is preferable over assuming they want it. Whether the person was born with or acquired a disability later, the specific physical components of the disability, and the person’s disposition about the disability all factor into how a disabled person wants to manage his or her disability. Karyna echoes this. “What really bothers me is when people come up and just start to push me. It is a huge assumption that I want the help.” But she understands it can be confusing. “If people always see me being pushed, it is a reasonable assumption to make. However, when I do not accept help, this happens far less. But more than that, I don't want to become anyone's burden. I want to save my favors for when I need them.”

Karyna came to Trinity because of the size of the classes and enjoys interacting with her professors as she pursues a Business major in addition to Computer Science. She is a delightful young woman from Houston, with a big smile and a big heart – and a lot of pride. Does that factor into asking for help or not? “I hate to admit it, but yeah, definitely. It still stings a little to be sitting there doing absolutely nothing, as somebody else does all the work. Or to say hi to people I know on the way to class, knowing that they have to kind of awkwardly ignore the person they don't know who is pushing me. I want the help, but I resent 'needing help', if that makes sense. So definitely it is an issue of pride, which, really is the least important thing when compared to being on time for class. And I like to think that I meet a lot more people this way,”

One can see how complicated this can get. “People may assume I need help, but if I was always refusing help, I would be seen as standoffish, less friendly. I'd much rather be humble and amicable, than proud and cold.” Indeed, she says, “It’s kind of complicated for me, most of this is just stuff I feel, and it’s a bit hard to describe. I don't want anyone to feel like I am not incredibly grateful.”

“One of the reasons I came to campus in freshman year ready to battle cardiac hill all by myself was that I never expected this outpouring of kindness from the trinity community. I have gotten so very many offers of help, from gardeners, construction workers, teachers, students, alumni, everybody. One time I had an eighty year old alumni push me for a bit, because she said it was almost as good as having a walker for the climb. People have pushed me in the rain, and many people have sacrificed being on-time to class for me, or have started pushing me even though they are headed in the opposite direction, and have often had to double back from where they just were. Once or twice people have even helped me carry groceries from the C3 store back to my room. It’s these people that make me continually grateful that I did decide to come to Trinity.” Likewise Karyna.

While we can muddle through doing the right thing, or not, for Karyna and others, this is something she lives with daily. And clearly like us, deciding what is right or not for Karyna can change with the day. “Some days I just enjoy the exercise,” she says. For her, the question will always be whether it is easier to accept help, or decline it. Only she knows which is better at any given time. When push comes to shove.

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