Peuchère or What Not to Say to a Disabled Person

Mom (c) Kristin Espinasse
I'm having the time of my life with my wonderful mom! I love this innocent, serendipitous photo with Mom and her little fish purse. The sign says: "You are at the right place. Look no further." Vous êtes au bon endroit. Ne cherchez plus

peuchère (peuh-sher)

    : poor dear, poor thing

Peuchère is a Provençal expression of sympathy, used to indicate compassion for someone: Peuchère elle doit avoir mal au dos! Poor thing. Her back must ache!

Peuchère may also rank among the top Ten Things Not to Say to A Disabled Person. Can you list some others? Comment... or read on in the following story.

A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse

I was standing in the supermarket checkout line with my daughter when I saw a man approach in a motorized cart. A familiar dilemma returned: did I offer him my place in line--or risk making the man feel pitied?

Over the years I have struggled with the subject--ever since watching a man in a wheelchair open the door of his car (driver's side). A friend and I were across the street when we noticed the wheelchair-to-car transition--only each of us had a completely different reaction.

My instinct was to wait and see how the transition unfolded. If the man needed help, we could then offer it. But my friend fumed. "WHY ISN'T ANYONE HELPING HIM?" She shook her head angrily as she stood watching.

Her outrage made me feel ashamed. Had I not reacted fast enough? Would I have reacted in time? But I hadn't wanted the man to feel pitied. I hadn't been sure how to respond, I only knew I would be there if the man needed help. Meantime, the man managed to hike himself up into his car, taking with him the folded wheelchair. No assistance had been needed after all. But could the man's experience have been smoother had my friend and I intervened? Or might we have slowed or even put a snag in his familiar routine?

Fast forward ten years. Youtube. I happened upon a rant wherein a middle-aged man in a wheelchair complained about how people over-respond to his condition. "Can I get the door for you?" said the man (paralyzed from a bike accident), and the cynicism in his voice as he mimicked the modern-day good Samaritans made me even more uncertain of how to assist--or how NOT to assist--a disabled person. It seemed you were damned if you did, damned if you didn't.  But how to get past the poor them/poor me (all I wanted to do was help) syndrome in time to help out when needed?

Standing there in the checkout line I tried to be discreet while figuring out whether the man-on-wheels needed help. The answer came swiftly and easily when I looked up and noticed the sign depicting a pregnant lady. Aha! This was the caisse prioritaire line. It would be perfectly normal for me to offer my place in line without making the man feel pitied.  But the woman in front of me was about to fall into the same trap I had hoped to avoid.

"Peuchère!" she declared. "Il me fait de la peine!" she said, explaining why she had just given up her place in line, too. I wanted to shush her up so that the man wouldn't hear her "I feel so sorry for him!" remark... but who was I to shush another's expression of compassion? Her sympathy was sincere and mimicked my own sentiments as we watched the hard-of-hearing senior hand over his thread-bare change purse to the cashier so that the latter could fish out the somme due.

That's when we watched the cashier turn the purse upside down and shake it. Oh no! The man was 4 euros 36 cents short! Suddenly the "peuchère" woman went silent, opting to arrange and rearrange her pile of groceries along the tapis roulant. It didn't mean she was indifferent to the man's dilemma; she was probably doing what many do, French or otherwise: allowing the man privacy as he settled his finances.

But, given the purse's upturned state, it didn't seem likely that finances would settle on their own accord! I looked around nervously, and finally whispered to the woman ahead of me. "We ought to be able to rustle up the rest?"

The French weren't stingy, they just didn't seem to have the "pay it forward" reflex. "On doit pouvoir trouver ça," We've got to be able to come up with that," I hinted to the other customers in line. Next, I watched as wallets flew open and French fingers went to work rifling through the contents of their money purses. The collective reaction was so touching that I didn't notice, right off, how the contents of my own purse were as spare as those of the man we were trying to assist....

"Jackie!" I whispered, "do you have any change? I can't believe it," I said, searching through my wallet, "I don't have enough!" And there I'd gone suggesting that "we" pay the difference! Only, as things were, I'd given the job of debt-paying to the others in line! No matter how many times I rooted through the change purse, all I could come up with were pennies. The ten euros I'd been searching for was in my jeans pocket... back at home!

"No worries," the woman in front of me said. "I think I've got it!" I watched as she handed over enough coins to pay off the man's modest debt. I noticed the relief and happiness on her face. Whereas she had initially frozen up allowing the man to deal with his dilemma in privacy, she now had unwittingly experienced the "Pay it Forward" principle--and the good feelings it brings to all involved! The movement was gaining ground in other countries, but I'd yet to see strangers paying for strangers in France.

I watched as the senior-on-wheels gazed up at his lovely benefactor. "You are an angel," he said to the woman. And by the way his face beamed with light you'd think he was the very same.


peuchère = poor thing
il me fait de la peine = I feel sorry for him
la somme due = amount owed
le tapis roulant = conveyor belt, carousel
on doit pouvoir trouver ça = we should be able to come up with that

Colorful patina in Sospel

A Message from KristiOngoing support from readers like you keeps me writing and publishing this free language journal each week. If you find joy or value in these stories and would like to keep this site going, donating today will help so much. Thank you for being a part of this community and helping me to maintain this site and its newsletter.

Ways to contribute:
1.Zelle®, The best way to donate and there are no transaction fees. Zelle to [email protected]

2.Paypal or credit card
Or purchase my book for a friend and so help them discover this free weekly journal.
For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Julie Farrar

It is interesting how different cultures react to the same situation. One area I'm uncertain of when in France is street beggars. In the States we frequently see signs not to give to people soliciting on the street but direct them to the facilities that can give them services. When I'm in France in the city where we have our apartment I see the same beggars in the same spots visit after visit, and see the French drop a couple of coins in their cup. It surprises me because I thought that France had a better support system than the U.S. So for me the question is "to give or not to give" on the streets of France. In the grocery store, however, I would have done what you did (but check my coin purse first!).

Linda Casey

Well Kristin .. you once again managed to make me cry AND laugh at the same time with THIS story. They say we entertain angels unawares from time to time .. I think you just proved it.


Hi Kristin, I think that you were also an angel in this situation--the motivator and the one with the message. Thank you for the inspiration to be courageous in the face of the unknown or uncertain. Say "hi" to Jules.

Alma Bond

You remind me of an incident I've never forgotten. I had a stopover in Germany and had to make a long distance phone call. Of course I had no German coins, and the operator wouldn't take American money. A German woman I had never seen before reached in and handed me a handful of German coins to make my call, and left. I hope she reads this to accept my thanks.


The Bible indicates that angels sometimes appear amongst us unbeknownst. I am a firm believer that they do so in order to offer us the opportunity to be compassionate of strangers! You passed the test, if such it was, with flying colors!

Allen Laskin

Nice story!

"paralyzed" or "paralysed (Brit.), not "paralized".

..."initially frozen up...", not "froze up"


My brother has been blind since birth. A few years ago I asked him my question about whether or not to offer assistance to a disabled person. His response was "Just ask them. If they do want your help they will say so and if they do not want it they will tell you. Simple!" I have followed his advice ever since. And it is interesting because I can never guess in advance who will be the person to accept my offer and who will not.


I'm not sure of an answer to your question, but I want to tell you about my friend Lianda. Eighteen years ago, when in her 40's, she suffered a stroke that left her entire left side paralyzed and blind in her left eye. After a month in the hospital, her friend Heidi showed up one day for a visit carrying a small bag. Lianda asked if she'd brought a gift and Heidi explained that she came prepared to shave her friend's underarms ... a task she could no longer accomplish on her own. Such love and tenderness chokes me up every time I think of it.

As for the man who was angry about people trying to help him, I think he was reacting to his own lack of acceptance of his situation. My friend made peace with her lot within a few weeks of the stroke; she never was angry at God or indulging in self-pity. When offered help she gladly accepts what she can use and politely and gratefully declines why she doesn't need.

I try to treat all people, disabled or able bodied, the same. If they look as though they require assistance, I offer it. They can accept or decline. It's all good.

Love you,


Bill Facker

I just arrived at my 89 year old Fathers home in Colorado for another all too short visit. Dad lost his eyesight to macular degeneration. He is so independent and possesses such an incredible spirit that I find myself being cautious to not over do the "helping" lest I overstep the bounds of helpfulness and enter the realm of perceived pity. Interestingly, I sometimes think I am the more handicapped as I cry inside for a condition my Fantastic Father seems to conquer with his "can do" attitude on a minute to minute basis. Merci, Kristin, for writing about this subject. Aloha, Bill

Sheryl in Denver

My son (who turns 18 in August) was born without his lower right leg and he wears a prosthesis. Unless he has shorts on, you would never know it. He is not shy about his leg and is not offended by any questions or comments. It is interesting the reactions I see when people notice his leg. Some will look away, some will give a look of compassion, some (mostly boys) will say his metal leg looks really cool. I think the questions of the little ones are the most innocent and sincere, and when I tell them it doesn't hurt at all, that's really what they wanted to hear. I think the bottom line is we are ALL challenged in one way or another and we all appreciate a kind word or offer of help, but not pity. Whether we might accept that help is up to each to decide.


My husband has been paraplegic for 12 years due to a spinal tumor and it was certainly an eye-opening event for both of us, to say the least. (We have been married almost 40 years). What we both have noticed is that pity is not part of the program. My husband drives, goes to work, is able to handle everything by himself while I take trips (to France!). He will definitely ask if he needs help, so no worries there. What is annoying is when people assume he's housebound and should be pitied. He was at the grocery store one day when a total stranger leaned down to him, patted his arm, and said, "It's good to see you out." Ooof!


What ARE the Top Ten Things Not to Say to a Disabled Person?

Winn Gregory

ditto comment #2...laskin comment haha./ as to Kristin you are uhhh Vous etes formidable. You just top yourself writing over and over. Smiles and tears and reflection on your lovingkindness. We are all blessed by reading the French Word-A-Day angel. Look forward to your writing like my daily cup of coffee or 12 and anxious to get your next book. Your 'critic' Winn

Herm in Phoenix, AZ

Salut Kristin….. Salut Jules,

Looks like Jules is still checking her purse to find some coins in the last photo. Ha!

A little “only in America” trivia……Maybe it’s an Arizona law. The trail head near me for the Shaw Buttes Mountain trails has about 20 parking spaces . . . 2 of them are for handicap parking. It’s the law!

Many times there is a line waiting to park and the two spaces are open. I have a permit from when I had my knee replaced and I use those spots since it frees up the other spaces. Then I go do my 2-3 mile hike.

À bientôt

Leslie NYC

This is certainly at the top of your huge mountain of great posts. The precision and variety of all the feelings and thoughts you express is so great, and what happened to you, being forced to accept that you were generous even without money, is some kind of philosophical justice! I really liked Cathy's advice, too. 'Oh! Treat them as if they were human beings?' That's what a lot of us forget most.I think most people freeze like a deer in the headlights. Merci, Kristin.


Kristin, this has nothing to do with today's post, but I just wanted to tell you that I receive "FRANCE TODAY" ~ have for years ~ and the new one which arrived a few days ago has Le Dernier Mot by YOU! How wonderful!! Congratulations for another lovely feather in your chapeau!

Enjoy your new neighborhood with your mom!


My husband, who had polio at age nine, and used a crutch and cane or a wheelchair, often had to come up with an answer to "What happened to you?" that could allow the asker to save face and keep the interchange brief. The best thing to say to a disabled person is hello. What NOT to say is anything referring to the disability. And as your mother taught you, don't stare.

Kristin Espinasse

Allen, thanks for the helpful edits. I will fix things at the next chance. :-)

Diane, I need help with this list; already some excellent tips are coming in. I liked Merediths story about avoiding assumptions such as : It is good to see you out! So this will be no. 2 on the list.

Her words remind me of a documentary I watched about a woman with no legs. While out shopping with her husband one day another shopper looked down at her and said (of her husband): You are so lucky to have him! (Make this the no. 3 thing not to say to a disabled person). Thanks for offering more ideas for this list.

Susie, thank you for mentioning the column in Fance Today! And ,Jeff, if you are reading, I saw your note, too! thanks for the cheers. I am very excited to be writing the last page column titled La Dernier Mot.

Judi Miller

Good lessons and "paying it forward" always feels good! Enjoy your Mom. I'm visiting my daughter for a few weeks and it is always just the best. (She lives on East Coast and I on the West Coast). Happy. Birthday to Max and send Jules
to CA to visit me next- we ALL need a Jules in our lives!!

Judi Miller

Can France Today be bought at news stands or subscriptio only?


Kristin -- do you remember the title of the documentary you watched?

Thank you for another thoughtful post.



Sorry, Herm, I'm sure you don't mean to be selfish, and you really believe that you are not depriving anyone who is disabled of a chance to enjoy this recreational spot and, okay, it's parking for a trailhead, so why would anyone go there if they were not physically able to hike a trail? I don't know the answer to that, but neither do you. I see your logic, but handicap spots are for disabled people, so there will always be one when needed by a disabled person. It's a good law, even if it seems excessive to some people. And I wonder, is it true that "only in America" is there such excessive accommodation for the disabled?

Cheryl in STL

My husband has a prosthetic leg (above the knee). After his accident, he was in a wheelchair for a few months while he was waiting for his new leg. It was eye opening to watch how people reacted to him. Sometimes I did need help with the wheel chair and I didn't hesitate to ask. Most people really do want to help, but don't quite know what to say or do. I usually ask if I can help.

And joyeux anniversaire to Max!

Eileen deCamp

Hi Krisin,
Glad you are having fun with Jules! I think just ask the person if they need/want help. Sometimes it is just obvious when people are struggling that they would love help! Tara said that the French people in Antibes where she was studying would look shocked when she would allow older folks, disabled or someone with just a few items go ahead of her in line at the grocery store. She said they would thank her and thank her.

Sarah LaBelle near Chicago

Maybe that person with the disabled placard can walk a bit down the trail if she arrives by car. Not all disabilites put a person in a wheel chair. I guess I wonder why so many healthy hikers are driving to a trail head.

I would put in that list, oh I get tired too, for the many disabling conditions that limit daily function. A very dismissive remark, that one.

Another spelling comment -- so that the latter (not later) could fish out the somme due.

A good story about paying it forward. Glad you are enjoying your mother's visit so much.



Faye Stampe, Gleneden Beach, OR

Happy Birthday to handsome Max! Great story Kristin. It makes me think and that's a good thing.

Have fun with your mom. Take photos and enjoy this time.

Stay well!

Nancy,                     Cambridge

Every day is Mother's Day with your mother and children there, eating outside with that view! Fabulous!

Mara in Wisconsin

I recall bounding onto the bus in Strasbourg with an American buddy, and we plopped into the first seats we saw,laughing and chatting. An older French woman gave us a look of disapproval, which quieted us down some. And then we realized we were in seats which were "au préférence pour les mutilés de guerre" and others of limited mobility. This being 1970-71, there were plenty of disabled veterans in France, although none on the bus at the time. We were able to redeem ourselves at the next stop, where a young mother with a toddler and stroller appeared at the door. We sprang up to lift the stroller up the steps--and then sat further off, leaving the mother and children in the more accessible seating.

N, San Antonio, Texas

What a touching story - I definitely believe in the pay it forward theory - one day stopped at Starbuck's to get a green ice tea and the car (metallic green VW bug) in front of me paid for it! I was shocked, delighted, surprised, touched and thought other people should feel that way also. So now I do that about once a month and I feel even better - the old saying is right on. The window staff tells me that more and more people are doing it too. Thanks for your story.

Gordon Lyman

I originally thought I'd sign up for this blog for the French language and culture. Those are still very fun but I've come to realize what I love most about these columns are the lessons in kindness and sensitivity.

You are like a bell (and a belle) that always seems to give off just the right sound when struck.

There are also wonderful lessons for me in the many persceptive comments from readers.

Thank you.


Carolyn  Dahm,  Sharon, MA

Beautiful and touching story Kristin and great ideas from so many. I agree with Gus that if your instinct is to help then go ahead and do it! If it's from the heart, you're doing the right thing. You made that man's day and he probably spent the rest of the day feeling such gratitude.

Love the photos and Happy Birthday Max! I'm sure you can't believe he's 18. Neither can we!

Best wishes to all, Carolyn :)


Happy Birthday, Max!!

Diane Young

Joyeux anniversaire, Max.
I think the simplest thing is to say, "can I help you?" or "do you need any help?". People are rarely offended by that. Never, ever, say anything pitying. I have to wear a glove and long sleeve all the time because of after effects of a stroke I had in 1998. My right hand and arm are always cold and cramp up immediately if not covered. People ask me why I'm wearing the glove and it doesn't bother me to explain. I used to get comments about my Michael Jackson impression but that's in tbe past now. Frankly, I'm just thankful to have the use of my hand and arm and don't worry about the questions or comments. I think most people with a health problem that's visible have learned to live with it and go on with life. It's great that you rallied folks to help gentleman pay his bill. We should all be happy to help a fellow human being in a case like that. Not giving to beggars in the U.S. is because too often they use the money for drugs and alcohol. Better to refer them to nearest shelter.


I am a huge proponent of "paying it forward". Do it whenever I can. Have even done the change for the customer in front of me. I never get tired of witnessing someone doing it or hearing about someone practicing the notion. I spend time in Cap Martin every summer and do the wonderful local bus thing. And I must say the French are VERY considerate in giving their seats to the infirm, elderly or pregnant ladies. I was even privileged to see a very proper and very well dressed lady insist on helping a muslim lady get her parcels off of the bus at her stop. You just never know. Gives one hope for humanity if even in small increments. Thanks for your post Kristin.

Ron Cann

People are different, regardless if they are healthy or disabled. It probably isn't wise to lump any group together in order to get the "right" answer. Sometimes people are too solicitous and it must be annoying to be treated like that. On the other hand, your reader who suggested that an angry response to an attempt to help was the individual's own problem coming to the surface, was on target.
My own approach is to try to offer help and remain aware that often the other person is responding to much more than just your comment. Surely an unplesant response is not going to scar you and should just be written off.
As for Herm pretending to be disabled,
c'est malheureux!

Kathy Shearer

We were wonderfully rescued one time in England many years ago. We picked up our rental car and drove far out into the country. Filling up with gas, Rees went in to pay with a travelers check (this was before we had a debit card or even a credit card). The clerk told us regretfully that he could not accept this payment, that he would be fired if he did. What to do? We were panicked, but then a very kind man offered to cash the check for us if Rees would accompany him to his home. He did this (I was left at the station as a guarantee) and shortly returned with the cash. The man told us that the same had happened to him one time in the US and someone had rescued him. So yes, it does come around.

Stacy ~ Sweet Life Farm ~ Applegate, Oregon

Adored your photos, loved this story. How can your son be turning 18 already?

Happy Birthday Max!


Our dear Kristi,
Another beautiful post (and pictures!)
Through your gifted writing we have once again had the privilege of a wonderful example of kindness to others!
Happy Birthday and God's blessings to dear Max!
Natalia XO

Mollie Baker

Here's a tip: When addressing a person with a disability, speak directly to him/her, and not to him/her through his/her companion! My 16 year old son has cerebral pasly and uses a wheelchair. He is quite evidently cognizant and capable of communication, yet some people insist on addressing him through me or his father. I've also had this same experience when shopping with a blind friend, and it happened recently when shopping with my 80 year old mother—I found that really surprising! Yes, you risk feeling awkward if it turns out the person can't communicate with you. But I think the awkwardness is worth risking for the sake of the person's dignity!

Herm in Phoenix, AZ

Seems some people are taking issue with my use of the handicap parking permit which was prescribed by my doctor.

I’ll be 83 years old next week. I have a total knee replacement for my right knee. Last fall I had a heart attack and needed a stent to relieve a blockage in one artery. In December, I underwent open heart surgery which included a quadruple bypass, a new valve and a pacemaker.

Four months after the heart surgery, my doctor gave his okay to hike in the desert. I do use a walking stick for balance and have increased my distance to two miles. It is an excellent rehab, but not for everybody.

The fact is: any one that can hike the Arizona desert probably isn’t handicapped and maybe the designated spaces aren’t needed. Especially since with 20 parking spaces, the farthest one is about 100 feet from the trail entrance.

Consider this scenario: The parking lot is full except for the handicap spaces. There are several cars waiting in line with their engines running, spewing out pollutants, and I’m parked in one of “their” spots. . . .Is that right?

Actually with the daytime temperature in Phoenix at 100 degrees now and heading higher, the problem goes away until about next November.


bon anniversaire Max!!!

Bill Facker

Don't know how I managed to miss the birthday of Max "James Dean" Espinasse .. But a very happy and hearty 18th to you, Mr. Max! Eighteen is such a special Birthday and I hope yours was and is Fantastic !

Jim Alsip

Is Max still interested in joining the Air Force?

Jennifer in OR

Herm, I adore you and your comments here and it's too bad you had to come back and defend yourself! Having read enough of your comments over the years, I know you to be an exceptional, kind, generous, thoughtful, smart, and funny person! One who would never take advantage of others-- and upon reading your initial comment about your use of the parking permit I only though, "wow, that's actually a great way to help others!"

Have a blessed day, Herm. :)

Kristin Espinasse

Herm, I will never forget the day, not too long ago, that the doc finally gave the OK for you to return to your beloved trail. You are an inspiration and a generous soul.

Jim, thanks for asking for an air force update. Max is now unsure of whether he will join. He is now considering business school in Lyon...


Darling Herm,

It's a little after 10:30 p.m. - before I go to sleep I want you to know how much you mean to Kristi and me - and that you can park anywhere at anytime whenever you want - you are so special to so many people here at FWAD. We love you so much.




Kristin, don't you "rustle up" something? "rassle" doesn't look right..... Great anecdote again. LOVE the way your purse was empty after you intiated the coin donations! WHO paid for your shopping??
LYON - a fabulous city! Just spent a week there! Wonderful! And we were involved there - in LYON - with an angel after a devil had picked my husband's pocket! Standing around the top of the metro stairs, we rang up the German banks to cancel cards etc etc....when after about 15 minutes an elderly man with a silver pigtail approached us and - to keep this short - handed us the stolen wallet! With ALL THE CARDS INTACT. Just the 300 smackers were gone.... He had found it, he said. Virtually at our feet where we stood. So the "devil" had piffed it after taking the cash and this lovely gentleman noticed our stress......happy ending.


Wish there was a "like" button on the many likeable ones.


Herm, I thinks it's wonderful that you are active in spite of all your physical challenges, and don't begrudge you the spot at all! It seemed like you were saying that you no longer need the handicap permit, but use it anyway because you think it's absurd to have handicap spots at a trailhead. But it's clear that you really do need that little extra consideration, which is what disability laws are all about. I was only taking issue with the way you seemed to be mocking the idea of requiring special spots for people with challenges (like you). But really you are a good example of someone who deserves to have things made a bit easier for him. Keep hiking and if it helps to always have that handicap spot waiting for you, tant mieux!

Sarah LaBelle near Chicago

ditto to what Leslie says, Herm.
You are using the trail to regain your strength. A shorter walk to the trail helps you focus on that laudable goal.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)