It seems like almost every day I am faced with an awkward encounter with a stranger, whether it is in a coffee shop, the mall, or even on the Internet — and more likely than not, that awkward encounter centres around questions about my disability or how I live my life as a disabled person. I recognise that nine times out of ten people aren’t trying to be inappropriate or make me uncomfortable; they’re just genuinely curious or concerned. That doesn’t mean their questions are appropriate either. Every time I address this, the usual response is, “But I don’t know what to say.”
I decided to help my tribe with the questions I am asked and how I respond to them:
- Why are you in a wheelchair?
- Where is your parent/caregiver?
- What would she like to eat/drink?
- Do you have a licence to drive that thing?
- I was crushed by a stampede of donkeys: Apparently, you are more likely to be crushed by a herd of stampedes than hit by lightning so, statistically; I felt that this answer carried some weight.
- A very serious dancing injury: Depending on who you are talking to, you can get really creative with this one from Foxtrot to Samba. It is important to note that many people have sustained serious leg and back injuries from mimicking Patrick Swayze’s infamous jump from Dirty Dancing, usually practiced at Christian weddings.
- Spring breaks – shark attacks: This is the holy grail of replies and, believe me, it works the best. Place yourself in Sydney out on a speedboat near Bondi Beach. You and your friends decide to take a dip in the calm Tasman Sea. Suddenly, everything goes black and you wake up to discover that you – in a fit of fight or flight – bravely fought a tiger shark. The shark may have taken a chunk out of your leg, but you emerged as the champion.
Typically, when I get this question, it is from a complete stranger who has not even bothered to say hello or speak more than two words to me. Starting off the conversation by asking me about my private medical history is never OK — and if you feel compelled to ask me about my disability, do it with a little more tact and respect. As a lifelong wheelchair user, I will tell you there is nothing “wrong” with me, and that my wheelchair is just a tool I use to get around. However, when this is the first question you ask, it shows that you don’t see anything else except for my wheelchair.
I often get this question from strangers who assume I need help doing something when I’m at the mall or in some other public space. It is super problematic because it strips me of my competency and assumes I always need help or supervision. I am a woman in my 20s, not a child, and I don’t appreciate being treated like I need a babysitter.
OK, so this one isn’t really a question directed towards wheelchair users, and that is precisely the problem. So many times when I go out to places such as restaurants, bars, or coffee shops — particularly with a non-visibly-disabled person joining me — whoever is serving us will automatically ask my companion what I would like to order. Why is it automatically assumed that I cannot speak for myself and need someone who appears able-bodied to do it for me?
I get this one from people who think they’re being funny by making some kind of driving joke about my wheelchair. It can come in many variations, including but not limited to: Can you get a speeding ticket in that thing?, can you get a ticket for drinking and driving in that chair? etc. The thing is that these jokes are not funny, and I’ve heard them 1,000 times. All they do is make me feel uncomfortable and create an awkward situation where neither person knows how to respond.
The boredom of rehashing the truth day in and day out led to me dipping into the fictional side of my brain and, needless to say, I got creative – too creative – with my answers.
I could go on forever about the things I have heard from people. But now it is time for you to share your experiences. Let me know in the comments below!
Author: Tanya Sachdev
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Inclov as a company.