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When a Stranger Asked What's 'Wrong With' My Son With a Disability

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As we enjoyed our Sunday morning walk, we took a break so I could take my 4-year-old son out of his specialist buggy. As I helped him off the seat and past the footrest, I then awkwardly maneuvered myself around his body, so that I was standing behind him. As my hands moved to under his armpits, he knew we were ready and he began his walk.

I told him he was the boss and then helped him move to where he wanted to go. We waddled along the path, changing direction regularly, until we saw two people with two dogs approaching. My son began to wave at them and I told him to say hello. He waved again and this prompted the lady to approach. She greeted him so warmly that he began to laugh and shake his head with glee. The lady took his hand and said how lovely it was to meet him. She then introduced her dogs and gave my son a dog treat to feed them.

Then, with a calm and positive voice, she said, “What’s wrong with you, then?”

As she was looking at my son, I didn’t respond. Partly because I wasn’t sure what she was asking, and partly because I didn’t know how to respond. My son can’t talk beyond a few words, so he also didn’t respond. There was an awkward pause, which she broke by saying how lovely he was, and then they left with lots of waves and air kisses by all.

In some respects, it was a lovely positive exchange, one that parents of kids with disabilities hope for on every outing, but completely understand that they are as beautiful as they are rare. But it didn’t take long before my mind started to overanalyze the exchange.

“What’s wrong with you then?”

What does that mean? What’s occurring? What’s the matter? What’s going on with you then?

Or does it mean:

What are your additional needs? What’s the name of your condition? What’s wrong with you?

The more I thought about her choice of wording, the more confused I got. She was lovely, she was positive, she treated my son with such kindness… but it’s still very jarring to have a stranger ask a question that is incredibly loaded and too complex to answer in passing. So then I started to try and think of an alternative question I would’ve been happier to hear, and I couldn’t think of one, not one at all.

You could say that it’s none of her business and she shouldn’t need to know his medical history to be kind to him, but then again, I am an advocate for questions. Through questioning we learn, through questioning we build understanding, through questioning empathy grows. But I just need to figure out the right kind of question so that next time, I am ready to respond and educate.

How do people talk to you about your child’s condition? What questions do you welcome and what ones are best to avoid?

Originally published: December 21, 2020
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