Charity: the unwanted gift that keeps giving

Charity: the unwanted gift that keeps giving

Still state-side, Paul Carter finds himself greatly discomforted by the Americans’ direct approach to personal giving.

For those who might have missed my last piece, I’m in New York City at the
moment, gaining a weird and wonderful insight as I go into how disability and difference is treated in this amazing, inspiring, yet completely and utterly bonkers city. In my previous notes I alluded to how much more ‘them and us’ it feels towards disabled people here, and that at times it feels a, bit, well (whisper it)….charity. That was my initial impression. An impression that I have now had fantastically reinforced by complete and utter strangers. Not once, not twice but three times.

Three times now, complete strangers have tried to give me money. The first time was when I was getting off a subway train and a man tried to give me a 10 dollar bill. I mean, I had ridden the train particularly well that morning, I’d done that thing where I got on the platform just as one arrived, but I didn’t think that warranted rewarding financially. A knowing ‘well done’ look would have sufficed. Why was he trying to give me money? I shrugged it off and put it down to the strange kinds of people you meet underground. Not two days later though, I was walking along when a man sat on a plastic patio selling bottles of water tried to give me 2 dollars. My second thought after, “Clearly my value has dropped” was, “Why is this happening again?” This couldn’t be blamed on weird subway people, this was on the street. It was then I realised I was being given money simply because I was disabled. I was, one can assume, seen as ‘needy’. This was deeply unsettling. I hurried past, secretly wondering at what price I’d sacrifice my principles and take the money. I’m not telling but let’s just say I’m quite cheap.

It made me think of the very first disabled person here I saw out and about near to where I live. It was actually someone who, like me, didn’t have any lower legs. Except, unlike me, they weren’t looking for a bar that sold imported British lager, they were sat on a street corner in a battered wheelchair rattling a plastic cup with change in it.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone is the same and that just because I’ve been relatively fortunate with my life opportunities, anyone else with the same or similar impairment should be the same. I’m not naive enough to think that people’s impairments don’t impact on their lives differently, and this is compounded across nations and cultures. But still, there’s something quite unsettling to see someone above you in the Premier League table of disabilities (this guy had arms so he’s already winning) begging for money and generally looking completely helpless. I’ll admit to an awful thing – I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want him to see me because I felt guilty. Then I was worried I’d affect his chances of money. Although looking back maybe we should have teamed up – two stumpies together would surely have coined it in. It did though explain to a degree my experiences of people trying to give me money. If people’s visible experiences of disabled people are of people in need of assistance, then it’s a natural progression to assume that ‘all’ disabled people are like that. I could write a whole book on the cultural reasons and differences that feed into this, but it doesn’t make it any less unsettling when it happens to you.

I should stress though that being given money for just being me has happened once before in the UK. I was minding my own business, waiting for a friend outside Covent Garden tube station when someone came up to me and tried to give me some spare change. I was mortified. Admittedly I was rocking the full on tramp chic look at the time – meaning I looked even more dishevelled and alcohol-afflicted than usual. For those who don’t know, Covent Garden is also where loads of street ‘entertainers’ (you can tell by my inverted commas how entertaining I find these to be) hang around – human statues and the like. So I suppose there’s a chance my benevolent stranger had thought I’d gone to a whole new level of elaborate costume and they were simply rewarding my ingenuity. They were tourists though, so based on my recent experiences, they were most definitely American.

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