I’m pretty sure not a week goes by where I’m not subjected to remarks about my disability. Now, before I even get into this topic, I’m going to politely put forth my counter-argument to the inevitable responses that I’m being nit-picky about semantics or complaining unnecessarily about comments made by well-meaning able-bodied people. I believe that if you truly mean well, you’ll consider how it feels for people with disabilities to be gawked at, subjected to ridiculous comments or prodded for our life stories, and perhaps stop to think about whether it’s appropriate to blurt out a nosey question.
My disability doesn’t make particularly good small talk.
Somehow, “Nice weather we’re having” just doesn’t seem to flow nicely with “So, what happened to you?” I believe when people do this, it’s a sort of defense mechanism because they may feel unsure about how to act around me. However, I do realize people may actually be curious about why I’m in a wheelchair. So, if you really must ask, try to be polite.
The most respectful ways to ask are:
- “May I ask why you use a wheelchair?”
- “May I ask what your disability is?
Avoid asking things like:
- “Were you born that way?”
- “Were you in an accident?”
- “What’s wrong with you?”
No matter how obvious a bodily feature may be on another person, this does not give you license to ask about it in insensitive ways.
That being said, I definitely don’t mind when young children express unfiltered, innocent curiosity. When adults pry, it can be rude. Children, however, should be encouraged to learn everything they can about the world around them. Ideally, parents should teach children how to ask politely about disabilities and support the learning process. Instead, what usually happens is that parents will yank their children by the arm and hiss “Stop asking questions and get back here” or “She was in an accident and got a boo-boo, don’t bother her.” This is absolutely not a good way to handle this situation. It reinforces the idea to children that my disability must be scary and contagious, so I should be isolated and left alone.
Furthermore, such responses about what’s “wrong” with me are inaccurate. Let children learn about disabilities and learn to interact with people with disabilities as they would with any able-bodied person. Children must learn their behavior from the adults in their lives, and yet it is adults who often concern me the most. Interaction among adults should not be based on a person’s appearance or ability, but unfortunately, this is quite common.
Politeness is especially imperative when you’re in a professional role. For instance, if you’re a salesperson trying to convince me to make a purchase, you probably won’t have much luck in getting my money if you ask why I’m in a wheelchair, because that has no relevance to the conversation and it likely won’t make me feel more comfortable or connected to you. This happens more often than you’d think. In fact, last week, my parents and I were visiting family in Florida. While window shopping at an antique store, my grandma, my mom and I were admiring a beautiful floral-patterned bowl. The store-owner came outside to try to make a sale and the conversation went something like this:
Store-owner: You like this bowl? It’s French. Made in the 1870s.
Me: It’s beautiful.
Store-owner: You want to make an offer? It’s worth $800 but I can do $375.
Mom: It’s lovely but we’re not in the market for antiques right now.
Store-owner: How about $250. I can do $250….Were you in an accident? I had surgery on my ankle once. [Lifts foot to show tiny scar.] The doctors made me use a wheelchair.
Me and Mom: [Sharing a look.] No, it’s genetic.
Store-owner: Oh. So you want to make an offer on the bowl?
As you might have guessed by now, that attempt at making a sale was definitely not successful. Admittedly, it was due in large part to the fact that spending $250 on a piece of ceramic wasn’t in our vacation budget. However, any chance the woman had of selling us the bowl went out the window when she went completely off topic to fish for information about my mother’s and my disability. It was just off-putting, awkward, and unprofessional.
Since I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, I think it’s possible that people feel directly addressing my disability can be a sign of acceptance, or sharing an anecdote can help forge a connection. To tell you the truth, it usually doesn’t accomplish any of that. I am a person with plenty of other facets to my character and personality; there are plenty of ways to find common ground with me. Once you get to know me, you’ll find the topic of my disability will come up naturally. You don’t need to force anything or dig for personal information. I also believe most people aren’t purposely inconsiderate. So, here’s a helpful hint: Act around me like you would around a nondisabled person! My wheelchair is just an object; my disability is just another part of me. There’s no need to feel awkward or compelled to comment just because I happen to be sitting.
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