Asking about a disability?

I’ve used a wheelchair for a couple of years. When I first wound up in it, I would tell practically everyone what happened (car accident) when I met them or soon after, at least I remember it that way. Now I don’t tell the story all that often. For example, at the place where I have worked (part time) for a year and a half no one knows the background, at least I don’t think so. I’ve never had a problem with telling people what happened, and think it’s kind of funny when people don’t know how to approach the question ("If you don’t want to tell me, it’s OK, but how …).

Strangely enough, when I found myself in the same situation with a teacher who had a prosthetic limb, I never did ask him what happened. Not necessarily that I wasn’t curious, just that I didn’t know how to bring it up.

So I’m wondering, are most people curious about the background of a disability and they don’t know how to ask? Or are people not interested, and when I was first hurt, I was pushing information on them that they didn’t care about? I had my personal curiousity about my teacher, but I didn’t know if there was some kind of thing where my situation was the root of the curiousity or if everyone has it and just doesn’t know how to bring it up? If you see someone with a disability do you want to know what happened? Is there some sort of ranking on injuries/disabilities that are “OK” to ask about?

I guess the situation with wheelchairs is that there’s simply so many possibilities. If somebody’s blind, it’s because their sense of sight doesn’t work. If they’re in a wheelchair, it could be spinal cord damage, or muscular wastage, or severe balance problems, or issues with joints, or. … you get the idea. My feeling is that it’s this incongruity between the obvious (the wheelchair) and the unknown (the cause) that makes people want to know more. Also, there’s the distinct possibility that it’s the result of a traumatic incident (injury or illness) that the person would rather not talk about at all. The same as you don’t ask somebody about a previous marriage uninvited.

I’ve a friend who lacks the end two joints of all his fingers. It’s an inherited genetic condition. People are incredibly tentative about asking him about it…he described how after his first six months at university, somebody finally broached the topic, and it opened the floodgates for everything everybody had wondered over that whole period (naturally it degenerated into the implications for foreplay and so-forth). But he has absolutely no issue with it whatsoever (although having a whole family with the same problem must’ve helped) - perhaps it’s not as noticeable as many physical problems, and certainly doesn’t seem create that ‘ick’ factor that many people unfortunately resort to.

I try not to use “Hey, why are you in a wheelchair” as the opening gambit in conversation.

Yes, of course I’m curious. However, I might be more interested in something else, such as asking for directions, offering assistance with a door, discussing the weather, or griping about the weather. When I do finally get around to asking it’s usually in the form “If you don’t mind my asking, why —?”

Sometimes, though, it’s just not a huge enough issue to ever get around to asking. I’ve know a couple of people missing fingers I just never got around to asking how those bits went missing.

Sometimes, how the person acts might affect whether or not I ask - in the case of people with mangled hands, for instance, if they act really self-concious I might not ever mention it. If they aren’t self-concious, I’m more likely to ask.

I’ll ask, but only after I’ve known someone for a while.

I worked for a LTC facility for physically disabled adults when I was in grad school, so that took care of any squeamishness I might have about not knowing how to talk to someone in a wheelchair/using a cane/whatever.

If I’m talking to someone with an obvious disability, there are two things that I’m concerned about that might make me hesitant to ask about it. The first is just plain selfish: I don’t want to be bummed out. I don’t want to ask a guy in a wheelchair what happened to him, because the answer might be “I have a degenerative disease that’s going to kill me in three months.” I know it makes me shallow, but I just can’t handle shit like that.

The second concern is that I figure someone who’s visibily disabled probably gets questions about it a lot. I remember when I was in college, every family get together the first question anyone would ask me would be “What’s your major?” and I got sick of that after hearing it maybe two dozen times in one night. I don’t want to be the 5,678,376 guy to ask you how you ended up in the chair. I figure there’s got to be no end of things you’d rather talk about than go over your medical history with a stranger one more goddamn time.

I suppose there’s a third reason: whatever response I get, what the hell do I say next? If I’m making small talk, I’m looking for points of commonality to discuss. Living with a permanent disability is so far outside the realm of my experience, I’ve simply got no where to go in that conversation. “So, you’re blind, huh? Yeah, I wear really thick glasses. I totally know what you’re talkin’ about.” Mmmm… no. Probably just easier to ask what your favorite band is.

I don’t think there is so much of a ranking in regards to the type of disability as there is regard to the degree of comfort and type of relationship you have with the person. My personal feelings here may not be most “average” because I have worked with people with spinal cord injury for a long time. Most want exactly what able bodied individuals want – to not be defined by just one aspect of who they are and to have friendships and relationships develop in a normal fashion.

I have a couple of co-workers who have spinal cord injuries and as we have become friends I know the details of their injury, and more importantly the details of how they moved forward afterwards. I feel like at the level of friendship we have I could ask them anything and they would feel free to tell me.

I also meet a lot of people casually and professionally who use wheelchairs and I would not ask them how they were injured unless it was in some way pertinent to the rest of our conversation or meeting. Now if I keep seeing them and a friendship develops I suspect we would get around to talking about their injury because you want to know about the important aspects of your friends lives…and you want them to know about you.

As far as wondering whether or not people wanted to know the information you shared with them in regards to your injury…I would think they were glad you felt comfortable enough with them to share that information. I know I would be. On the extreme flip side, I was out with one of the above mentioned co-workers and he had a little too much to drink and began sharing more very personal information related to his SCI with new aquaintances (we were attending an overnight work related meeting) than most of them appeared to want to hear. It was obvious that he was making them uncomfortable. Basically it was information you wouldn’t share with people you just met (especially in a work situation) and in an open bar situation period. I called him on it and at first he pleaded that people are always curious. He knew that didn’t give him a pass to make people uncomfortable. He finally conceded that he was showing off and being a smart-ass. I still love him. :rolleyes:

Hope this helps and makes sense…sometimes I ramble a little :o

I would be very interested in your telling me what happened to you without my asking. I find, however, that most people don’t talk about their disabilities because they are too busy coping with them or getting on with life, living their own kind of “normal”. If you and I engaged in a one-on-one conversation, I would ask the circumstances and how the disability had impacted you, but only after we had exchanged enough dialogue for you to feel that I was in fact not just prying into your business, but someone who is genuinely interested in learning more about you and just what makes you “you”.

When I’m out and about I use a cane. I have MS(Multiple Sclerosis), and the cane helps me maintain balance and delays fatigue.

Because I’m only 33, I have heard some stupid shit.

“I hope you get better soon.”

This was said by someone passing by without any other words being said.

If I had heard this only once it wouldn’t annoy me as it does. I think in the two years I’ve been using my cane I’ve had it happen about 2 dozen times. It always happens when I’m shopping.

“Bad car accident, huh?”

:mad: slow burn

This crap always comes out of people unsolicited, literally as they’re passing me in the store. I don’t give a shit if my circumstances make you uncomfortable or is making you think of your mortality. I’m trying to have a life and get things done without constantly thinking about my degenerative neurological disease.

This is different if someone is actually getting to know me in a social situation.

While I am tired of explaining what MS is and about myelin, I’m used to it.

I hate assumptions before the fact of why I use a cane, I loathe and resent pity, and in the event that I am so tired that I use a motorized cart, I am damn tired of the assholes who will stop in front of me and block the way or will stare at me angrily as if I’m joyriding or lazy.

I think one should only inquire about a disability when they’re actually getting to know someone. Otherwise I think it comes off as morbid curiosity and gawking.

I don’t have any obviously disabled friends, so I’ve never gotten to the point where it is something to just casually chat about. I do have a friend who went through a windshield and she has hideous…and I mean HIDEOUS scarring on her face. I would never dream of asking someone how something like that happened. When she was going through her reconstructive surgeries, I would ask her how she was feeling and how her recovery was going, but I cannot imagine asking someone how his or her face got destroyed.

I opened this thread thinking it was a response to the other thread that’s discussing whether to ask about disabilities.

My take is that it’s none of my business, it’s not the person’s job to educate every curious stranger, and I just don’t ask.

To the people who say, “Well, I just ask because I really want to know,” I say get over it. People lose limbs and sight and mobility; they get into car accidents and contract debilitating diseases. It’s a fact of life and you are going to encounter these people as you go about your business. Big deal. They’re just trying to go about their own business. Want to know about scarring and prosthetic limbs? Go read about it on the Internet or at the library. Don’t pester some random stranger who may or may not want to talk to every curious gawker. Like the woman in another thread who recently lost her index finger, it may be a fresh wound, both physically and emotionally. You just don’t know the person’s circumstances and you don’t need to ask.

That also goes for grocery clerks and other people who deal with the public who have a cast, or crutches, or a wrist brace. I’m quite sure that they DON’T appreciate having people come through their line and ask “What happened?” or “Got carpal tunnel?” hundreds of times a day. I tweaked Mr. S for doing this last week. Just buy your bread and toothpaste and leave the person in peace.

I’ve been around MD patients for the last dozen years. My wife had it and my daughter has it.
There are so many reasons why most people avoid this subject it would take a long while. But from my experience it is due to the fact that most people fear they might upset the person in question. They don’t know the reason and it may be due to a traumatic event that’s still touchy. Many people with “disabilities” don’t want to be seen or treated as such. Others prefer to talk about it. There’s no way to know at first introductions. It is usually wise to let the injured person bring it up.

I’ve been seeing a lot of this behavior this summer with the passing of my wife. Everyone who knew us, knew that we didn’t go out alone. One night a “friend” popped off something smart along these lines, “I see your old lady hasn’t been with you the last couple of times you’ve been here. What happened, did she leave your ass?” I realize that this was said in jest, but it was a very fucked up thing to say under the circumstances. When I looked at him he knew he’d messed up. So I told him. It took ME an hour to get HIM straightened up. He’s dodged me like the plague ever since.
Another example: I had a handicapped plates on the car. Parked the car next to the store and was crossing the walk like any healthy person. Some smartass says…WTF are you doing taking up a handicap space. A few seconds later I’m wheeling my daughter out of the store and across the walk to the car. The guy just sat there in his truck with his face in his hands. He never looked back up.
I guess my point is that sometimes it’s best to keep your mouth shut until you get a clue.

Then there’s the other main reason. Lotsa folks really don’t want to hear about bad shit. When they ask, “How are you doing?” They want you to say, “Fine, how about yourself.” Smile and keep on trucking. Don’t actually proceed to tell them the truth. They will quit asking you after that. Like I said though, there are several reasons but those are probably the two main reasons.

I wouldn’t ask someone say, shopping in my store. But I would ask someone in a communal living situation (like a dorm) or in a more personal relationship.

This is why I’d be afraid to ask. I wouldn’t want to make someone mad like this.

I was behind a woman in line at Kohl’s the other day and I noticed that her hands and arms were terrible burned and she still had a bandage on one of them. Obviously I didn’t ask what happened, but I was curious in my head. I really thought about that woman all evening. She seemed to be getting along so well, and I was impressed. But I still felt so badly for her because I cannot imagine how I would cope with something like that. It really made me realize how something like that could happen to anyone. Scary, but part of life, I guess.

Funny you should use that example. I have a blind friend, and I’ve noticed that everyone seems to want to know if she’s blind from birth or if she lost her sight. She is blind from birth, so I have no idea if people would ask her how it happened if she had lost her sight after birth.

I’ve certainly had people ask me about her blindness because they were uncomfortable asking her directly. I wonder if those of you with disabilities think that that’s an acceptable thing to do.

OP, your curiosity of others is not just because of your situation. I think everyone is a bit curious about anyone who is different from what he considers “normal.” You’re probably not just curious about perceived disabilities. Assuming you’re not part of it, I’d say you look upon the Ultra Goths with some wonder (why did they choose that social niche?), same way as I look upon 110% dedicated athletes–what are *they * thinking and what must their daily routine be like? The only real difference is the element of choice which, makes disabilities more interesting because, well, few people would chose blindness or wheels. Goths, Jocks, Disabled (and heven fobid I should meet a disabled Goth Jock! :eek: ) all suggest a different daily routine from my own, and curiosity ensues. Natural.

As far asking about it, I agree that unless you have some investment in a relationship with another person, the particulars are unnecessary. To ask of a total stranger without admitting patent curiosity is as prying as asking religion or sexual preference. And offering the information unsolicited is just as annoying.

Work environment is a bit different. After 2 years in this department I finally got a boss I can stand. He keeps his hair VERY short (#2 buzz cut) which displays a very prominent scar running from behind his ear along the front hairline. I finally asked him about it, expecting an accident. Nope. Inoperable brain tumor that’ll kill him in 5 years. He took my crack about seeing an opening in management in a couple years quite well. It’s all about relationships.

I wish people would stop asking me how I am unless they are a close friend and REALLY want to know.

I don’t want to be asked how I am unless it is by a friend, doctor or nurse, or an SO. Everyone else needs to step off.

To the people who say, “Well, I just ask because I really want to know,” I say get over it.
Don’t pester some random stranger who may or may not want to talk to every curious gawker.


I don’t give two hoots of shit about your (hypothetical ‘you’) insatiable curiosity. That’s YOUR problem to deal with, not mine. I’m just living my life, so back off on intrusive questions unless there is an existing relationship beyond that of complete stranger.

Thanks for the responses, they’ve all been helpful, and reassured me that I wasn’t crazy (or as crazy) as I thought. I wasn’t so interested in whether or not it’s “OK” to ask about a disability, as I wouldn’t do that to someone, and the only people that have done it to me are children. When kids ask they’re usually scolded by their parent(s) or told to be quiet. I’ll go ahead and tell them, and I try to be friendly about it and simplify it. I don’t know if it works or not, but I like to think that I’m getting rid of some fear or mystery that a child might associate with a disability.

As for what I meant at the end, it was kind of a joke. I mean, if you see someone at work wearing a cast, then you’d probably ask what happened right off the bat, but for something that someone has had ever since you met them, then a person probably isn’t very likely to ask. For example, something that looks temporary (whether it is or not) like a cast or crutches would prompt a question before a disfiguring scar would.

What I was mostly interested in was to find out if people did care or want to know what happened. Like I said, I explained the circumstances at the drop of a hat after it first happened, and not so much anymore. I don’t think about it as much, or don’t think to bring it up as much, and I didn’t know if maybe I was boring people all along. So anyway, I’m happy to find out that, even with this small sample, people are (for the most part) interested to find out.

(The best way I’ve ever had someone ask me about it was when I ran into a girl I knew in grade school. I recognized her, but she didn’t recognize me at first, but when I told her my name she said, “So, what’s new with you?” I thought it was clever – it probably helped that she’s really pretty …)

My husband has a very visible and rather unsettling scar all across the front of his throat and down from his Adam’s apple to his sternum. He was always very self-conscious about it, until he saw a small child in the grocery store queue looking at him with an expression of complete amazement. “Are you Frankenstein?” the little boy asked. His mother looked as though she really hoped the floor would open up and swallow her, but my husband roared with laughter. Since then, he’s responded to questions either honestly (thyroid cancer surgery) or sarcastically (knife fight in prison) depending on who asks.

To answer the OP, most people probably are curious, and either too afraid or too polite to ask.

This reminds me that I believe I’d be able to deal with a visible disability with some sort of dark humor. Sort of like the guy with cerebral palsy at my college who had a sticker that said “0 to 60 in 15 minutes” on the back of his motorized wheelchair. Several years ago I saw someone walking out of a grocery store wearing one of those halo-type things for spinal/neck injuries, with the four black poles sticking up from each corner. I figure if I had one of those, if people are going to stare, I might as well hang some colorful flags from it and give them something fun to look at. :dubious: