My disability is such an integral part of who I am that I forget to talk about it, or sometimes think about it. I know, what a silly concept! But please, humor me just a moment while we think about disability this way. If we look at my physical disability as just a physical characteristic and we compare it to other physical characteristics about myself, it is easier to relate to (I am in no way down playing the reality of having a physical disability, it comes with real challenges, I get it.) Let’s say for example, my hair color. I typically don’t spend my day walking around spewing facts about my hair color to anyone that I come across. So it would be quite odd for me to go around talking to people about the shape of my physical body. Even more so, I certainly don’t go around telling everyone how I ended up this way (i.e. with my hot bod).
In an ideal world, I probably wouldn’t have the “how did this happen” conversation with people who I wasn’t comfortable with. I don’t see how knowing what “caused” my disability is going to help anyone get to know me any better. I could, however, see how this information could be used to be a bit judgy, and if I come across Someone Who Doesn’t Know Better, I’m probably going to get some pity.
Every time you see someone with a physical disability or talk to someone’s whose mental or intellectual disability interferes with their communication skills, I would bet the question, “What happened to them?” crosses your mind. We’re all humans right? We are curious by nature. I don’t think there is anything wrong with wondering, but in my opinion, acting on it is a whole other ball game.
If you are a medical professional, or in a position that not knowing about disability can put someone at risk of injuring themselves or others, I understand how knowing how someone acquired their disability is something that you need to know. People that stop me on the street or in the grocery store are not asking for medical reasons (because that would be weird). I haven’t actually asked someone why they need to know this about me, a complete stranger to them, I can imagine that having that information helps them “figure me out.” Why does figuring people out become more important than common courtesy? In my person experience, I’d use that information to think differently about someone. Did they get in a car wreck? Now you might feel sorry for them or think they are a terrible driver. Was it drug related? Uh oh, that might lead to financial or drug problems. Was it some super interesting story? Great! Now you can run and tell all of your friends this person that you met that had this ridiculous, horrible, you’ll-never-believe-this story.
Well. I’m going to get a little bit ranty now. I believe that knowing this information isn’t going to help you understand a person’s day-to-day routine. It isn’t going to show you what their thoughts are on their disability. It isn’t going to teach you anything important that will directly affect your relationship. It’s just going to make you feel good about yourself for knowing. Yup. Great job! You’ve taken a very personal story and found a way to make it entertainment. You might have even gone as far to think, “Goodness, I’ll never do what they did!” Okay, I’ve said my peace.
A disability can be a hard pill to swallow. For some people, describing how they acquired their disability to a complete stranger can be triggering (e.g. burn survivors, “neurotic people” living with PTSD who survived intimate partner violence, veterans with limb loss…). Understanding the emotional impact of asking invasive questions about disability may never occur to people who aren’t educated on disability etiquette and mental health. If you were, you would respect a person’s privacy. If I want you to know why I don’t have two hands, then I’ll tell you. More than likely, I won’t tell you. The “How” and the “When”, isn’t important to my story. But the “What (I’m Doing),” “Why (I’m Doing It),” and “Who (I am)” are. Me as a person is much more interesting than me as a disability. The person is more interesting than their disability, and more important than the story of how they acquired their disability.
I don’t mean for anything that I say to come off rudely. I experience this situation almost everyday of my life, I sort of consider myself a bit of an expert. So please, the next time you speak to someone with a disability, think seriously before you startle them in the grocery store, because you were curious. It’s really just none of your damn business.