The Million Dollar Question.

Woman sits in a manual wheelchair.

If like me you have a visible disability, chances are you will have been asked something along the lines of “what happened to you?”. When the question comes from a curious toddler I don’t mind, but more often the question comes from older children and adults, who are usually total strangers. There are not many circumstances where this information is exactly necessary, and as such it’s a massive invasion of people’s privacy. Depending on the tone it can also be quite accusatory, and regardless of tone it is simply rude.

Despite the objectionable nature of the Ableds Inquisition, many disabled people still feel pressured to give an honest answer, as declining to provide this information often means being labelled as rude and can even lead to aggression. After providing said answer they then feel guilty for allowing the bad behaviour to go unchecked, increasing the likelihood that other disabled people will be subjected to the same treatment. Frankly, no one should feel ashamed of protecting themselves, and the onus is on the people continuing to ask intrusive questions despite the fact that plenty of disabled people have taken to the internet to condemn the behaviour.

One strategy I have found to be semi-successful in deflecting the nosy questions without being called rude names is to use humour. Upon being asked what happened to me I have responded by providing the most ridiculous story I can make up on the spot, providing the most mundane story I can make up on the spot, or used my personal favourite “it’s classified”. Most people are too embarrassed to repeat the question once it becomes clear that I don’t want to give an honest answer, but having appeared to answer in good humour they cannot label me as rude either. The reality of the matter is that the humour is just a shield, and I still come away from these interactions marvelling at the brazen attitudes of adults who are less capable of curbing their curiosity than a cat on nip.

One setting in which this strategy is less well-received is healthcare. Unless it is a medical emergency somehow relating to the disability, there is no need for medics to ask a disabled person what happened to them; that’s what medical notes are for, after all. If anything, asking that question instead of what the patient actually needs help with just wastes time, a precious resource in a healthcare system on the brink of collapse. Unfortunately, deflecting the question via any means (including with humour) only wastes more time. If a medic is asking how you became disabled it means they haven’t read your notes sufficiently, and probably won’t help you with anything until they have that information. Speaking from personal experience, giving the answer “you tell me” is particularly aggravating.

Disabled people should not have to provide personal information about their disability to strangers. Disabled people should certainly not be labelled as rude and accommodating for reinforcing their privacy and having strict boundaries. Disabled people should not be ashamed of feeling pressured to answer honestly. Unfortunately, disseminating the notion that asking these questions is rude will take time, so in the meantime if using humour to protect yourself is helpful I would highly recommend it. It’s not about always being positive or cheerful, or even giving others the benefit of the doubt; it’s about getting through the day with enough strength to get through the next one.

One thought on “The Million Dollar Question.

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