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When People Think They're Entitled to Ask Rude Questions About My Disability

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I was recently having a conversation with my friends, and my movement disorder came up. I have tardive dyskinesia, and it causes me, in my case, to make unusual eye movements and hard blinking. Obviously, this is a very public disorder that anybody looking at me can see. I’m not self-conscious about it, I’m always open to talking about it, but not everyone is like me. I tried to explain that to my friends, and they didn’t seem to understand it.

The conversation expanded to a broader conversation about how we are supposed to treat people with visible disabilities. My friends had a very clear stance: they were willing to ask anyone about their disability, no matter the time or place. They didn’t care if they embarrassed the person, they didn’t care if they made the person feel uncomfortable, they didn’t care if they offended the other person. Their reason, which I was unable to change:

“Well, I want to know, so I’m going to ask.”

I really didn’t know how to debate this with them any more than I did. I went down the list of reasons not to blatantly ask people they don’t know well about their disabilities, and nothing resonated with them. When I told them it could embarrass the person, they said they couldn’t control how that person felt. When I told them they could offend someone, they said they didn’t care. When I told them it was rude, they said that didn’t outweigh their “need” to know what happened. So told them two stories.

Several months ago, while I was at work, one of my coworkers noticed my hard blinking, and asked, in front of a lot of people, and very blatantly:

“Do you have Tourette’s or something?”

Now, like I said, I’m not embarrassed about my blinking. But not everyone is like me. I told them that story, hoping it would convince them that this was clearly wrong. And it seemed to have the opposite effect. They said they would ask the same thing if they were in that situation. They said it was a valid question, and they didn’t care that it was in front of other people. They didn’t care that it put me on the spot. They didn’t care that it could’ve offended me. They said my coworker’s “right” to know trumped anything else. So I told them another story.

Currently, I have to use a cane because of another temporary movement disorder I developed: vestibular ataxia. Even though I’ve mostly recovered, I still have to use it every now and then, and still have to wait for a doctor to approve me not to use it. One day I was getting into an Uber, and it happened to be my first day with the cane. The first thing the driver asked me:

“What did you do to your legs?”

I’m not embarrassed about my cane, or why I need it, either. But again, I’m not everybody. It was an incredibly rude, insensitive thing to say. Still, my friends saw no issue with it, and in fact, said it should be encouraged. I was almost at a loss for words. The message I tried to get across, that ultimately they didn’t accept: it’s none of your business.

My blinking eye movements are not anyone’s business other than mine. My cane is not anyone’s business other than mine. Don’t ask me about it. You never know how I’m going to react or how I’m going to feel. The mentality that people have the “right” to ask people about their visible disabilities because they want to know is plain wrong. You do not have a right to know anything about my disability unless I want to talk about it.

Now, my friends countered that with “well if you don’t want to talk about it, just say that after I ask.” And I told them that that’s not the point. That places the focus on the person with the disability to have to explain themselves, or be embarrassed if they don’t. The solution to that problem: Don’t. Ask.

My friends were passionate that their curiosity was the priority when it came to interacting with people with visible disabilities. I asked them, if they saw someone in a wheelchair, would they blatantly ask, in public, why the person was in the wheelchair? And they very proudly said they would. I didn’t even know how to respond to that. That idea is so clearly wrong, rude and insensitive. And frankly, I can’t put it into words fully why it’s wrong, because it just seems like one of those common-sense things everyone should know.

Visible disabilities, whether permanent or temporary, are often not easy things for the people who experience them. And it can be something people can be insecure or embarrassed about, especially if it’s temporary or new. The final question I posed to my friends: why are you trying to put people in a situation where you could hurt them? My friends:

“I can’t control if their feelings get hurt.”

At that point, that’s not logic or reason anymore. That’s just being a rude, disrespectful person. And it takes a lot of work to fix that, if it can be at all.

So, overall, my message to my friends and to everyone: if you see someone with a visible disability, it’s none of your business. Don’t ask them about it. Don’t try and guess what happened to them. You don’t have a “right” to know more about that. Asking them about it isn’t a way of “expanding your knowledge.” If you want to do that, read a book. Google it. I don’t care, but there are plenty of ways to learn about disabilities without hurting someone’s feelings. If you see someone with a visible disability, treat the person like who they are: a person. They aren’t a cane, or a wheelchair, or crutches, or blinking. They’re a person. So treat them that way. And mind your own business.

Getty image by ah86.

Originally published: August 19, 2020
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