I’ve been contemplating how to write this blog for a few days. Instinctively I find myself wheeling on eggshells over this topic when I really shouldn’t. As disabled people we’re expected to answer everyone’s questions with a smile, always be polite even when people are being rude and offensive and we’re expected to never show any sort of anger or resentment. If we do, we’re labeled as ungrateful.
I’ve been working for years on fighting the ways I am expected to act in public. When I started writing the series Things Abled People Have Said to Disabled People I realized it doesn’t just happen to me. Not only are the things said to us vile and disgusting but the things we are asked on a daily basis by complete strangers that then gasp when we dare refuse to answer or give a snarky response is absolutely abhorrent.
A few weeks ago I was at a bookstore, I picked up a book by JR Ward and the lady next to me said, “People like you shouldn’t read stuff like that, read this instead,” then she proceeded to hand me a copy of Me Before You. When my mouth dropped and I questioned, “People like me?” she hurried off without responding. I have no doubt if I was abled she wouldn’t have spoken to me at all and the fact that I dared respond to her clearly stunned her.
Now let’s think about this for a minute. If I said “people like you,” to someone of a different race or gender I’d probably be punched and rightfully so. But because I’m disabled that somehow makes it okay. If I asked a random abled stranger questions about their medical history they’d be offended and probably say something to me about how rude I am, but because I am disabled I’m just supposed to politely answer their questions without being offended? I don’t think so.
There seems to be some kind of disconnect between abled and disabled people where abled people forget disabled people are human beings. We have feelings and we get upset at things too.
When I’m asked things like what’s wrong with you, usually I say something like I want to see that person’s medical record before I tell them about mine. That usually leads to comments like, “You don’t have to be so rude about it!” But let me tell you something, yeah I do. Why? Because my medical history is none of your goddamn business and me sitting in this wheelchair is not a green light to ask me whatever you want. I understand people are curious when they see someone who is different, but asking personal questions is never okay. There is no “good” way to ask those sorts of things.
I also understand that some disabled people are okay with answering these questions, but a lot of us aren’t and I think once an abled person gets answers from a disabled person they expect every disabled person to answer their questions so when one of us doesn’t they are offended that we dared to say no. We do not all function as one unit. Each and every one of us have differing opinions and experiences just like abled people do.
But we don’t owe ableds anything. I’m not required to make myself uncomfortable just because an abled is asking me inappropriate questions. If you’re curious about what disabilities are there are literally millions of websites, blogs, Twitters, etc that will each give you their view on their disability. You can go to these places and read their point of view with what they are comfortable sharing without making me uncomfortable.
Things were definitely a lot worse when I had my service dog. People viewed her as an invitation to ask me questions about my disability, oftentimes using the conversation as an opening to pet her and using the, “you don’t have to be so rude!” comment when I’d tell them not to touch her. That is also NOT okay. Service animals are working and should never be touched or distracted without consent from the handler. The results of distracting or touching a working animal could be death for the handler. I am not exaggerating, but that’s a topic for a different post.
These questions and interactions have gotten so bad over the years that now I have really bad anxiety when I’m out in public, especially in confined spaces with ableds. Defending myself shouldn’t cause people to yell at me but that’s what happens.
It’s been my experience that ableds carry a lot of entitlement over disabled people and it needs to stop. Whether we’re talking about physical or mental disabilities we’re just people doing our best to lead our lives the best way we can. I think ableds are doing the same, so why can’t they just let us live? I wish I knew the answer to that. You are not better than us and we owe you no explanation of who we are, what disabilities we have or anything else, and stating so does not make us rude. It’s called having boundaries so stop bulldozing them.
There are millions of other ways to start a conversation with me that have nothing to do with my disability if you really feel the need to talk to me. What are they? Well, what would you say to me if I wasn’t sitting in a wheelchair? There’s your answer. I’m not saying don’t talk to us, I’m saying be respectful when you do. If you’re asking us something you wouldn’t want a stranger to ask you, don’t ask us! It really IS that simple. In time, once we get to know you, we will probably tell you what our disabilities are. Until we decide so, it isn’t your business though.