Thursday, 20 September 2012

That's Just Rude! I Don't Have to Answer That!

My awesome blogger friend Lorna did a post on this video over at "Gin and Lemonade": I had never seen the video before, and found myself nodding through most of it. People didn't ask me these questions or make these remarks when I was in a wheelchair, but I wasn't out in public very much when I was in my wheelchair. But I've hung out with enough people that use  wheelchairs that I've seen examples of most of what's shown in the video.

People that comment on the video rightly point out that people with other sorts of disabilities get treated in these ways, too.  When I'm out in the community with the people with intellectual disabilities that I've supported, people do tend to ask me questions about the person instead of asking them.  I've seen that this tends to happen less in smaller communities, where people tend to know who everyone is to a greater degree (uncomfortably so, sometimes, and you know what I'm talking about if you've ever lived in a small town). But it does still happen.

I've gotten a lot of these questions and remarks because of my cane and my arm. I've had people assume that because I have physical disabilities, I have intellectual disabilities as well. Many people assume that I don't work. I've been called inspirational, which really only bothers me because I'm not sure how to respond to it. I don't feel inspirational. I don't feel even particularly noteworthy most of the time. I just live my life dealing with what I have to deal with, the same way that everyone else does.

What Bothers Me

I watched the video a couple times, thinking that, yeah, ignorance about disabilities has definitely resulted in some extremely problematic patterns of talking to people (and around) with disabilities. I remember hearing at a funeral once, about the deceased, from a friend who didn't know I could hear her : "It's better this way. He wouldn't have wanted to be a wheelchair for the rest of his life," and it gutted me. "Like I could have been?" I thought, running from the room. "Does she believe that about me?"

No one knew whether I'd ever be able to walk again.

But what really struck me, watching this video, was the sex question. Besides thinking that if someone asked me "Can you have sex in that chair?" I'd say, "I usually get out of the chair," I thought, "What a wildly inappropriate thing to ask a stranger, disabled or not!" Who expects someone who's presumably an acquaintance at best to answer a question about their sex life?

Apparently society feels entitled to ask people who use wheelchairs that question, and feels entitled to answer. And I'm *really* curious as to where that attitude came from.

I watched the video again, evaluating the comments and questions through that filter of social appropriateness. And I'm starting to wonder if the problem isn't just that people don't know what to say to people with disabilities, or don't have an appreciation of disability's that people somehow have gotten the impression that it's okay to treat people with disabilities rudely.

It wouldn't be considered remotely polite to:

  • Ask an elderly male neighbour, "Can you still, uh, function like a young man, if you catch my drift?"  So why's it okay to ask a man that uses a wheelchair about his sexual functioning?

  • Grill a woman in the grocery store wearing a scarf on her head about whether she has cancer, what kind, how long she's had it, etc. So why are these invasive questions about a person with a disability's medical history okay?

  • Stare, in general. Aren't people brought up not to stare anymore? (Caveat: I'd rather have a little kid stare at me openly and then be given the opportunity to ask me questions than have an adult stare at me and try to hide the fact that they're doing it.)

It's interesting when you looks at the video in this way. There's all kinds of rudeness - some of it very disability-specific, others of it just...rudeness in general (like the pick-up line that ended the video). And I think how you categorize each comment depends on who you are your personal history.  The "Jesus will heal you" thing, for example...I believe that this is ultimately rude too, yes. But more for the assumption that I want to be healed than for the imposition of someone's religion on me. I can let the religion part roll off my back now. But that's a very personal view, coming from years of work to come to terms with religion's place in my life. Others may feel differently about it (as I did at one point in my life, when any perceived attempt to convert me would have made my blood boil).

Do you think that it's become okay to treat people with disabilities rudely? What do you think has caused it?

Oh, and Canadians get asked, "My cousin/roommate's brother/dog groomer's son-in law lives in you know him?"  all the time...%-)


  1. I walk with a crutch, sometimes two, or use a chair, but it seems to be one crutch that elicits most idiot comments.

    "Had an accident?"


    "Oh - pause - what's the crutch for then?"

    It's for bludgeoning nosey buggers!"

    "Oh. . . " Silence.

    I did toy, for a time, with the idea of inventing some hideous condition that'd make them feel horribly guilty for intruding, but these people are just too stupid, so I content myself with roundly abusing them. I find it quite satisfying. ;)

  2. Check out a funny post I wrote at strange angels and reposted at the goodmen project about can you have sex question.

  3. Sarah, my daughter complains about people asking her about her disability all the time because she tremors. I have mixed feelings on this. But I'm the mother of a young adult--not the person with a visible disability. On one hand, I'd rather have someone ask politely than stare. I feel that we live in an incredibly curious culture. With all the reality tv, I think people in the U.S. think everybody else's business is their business. So many are willing to share every single aspect of their life and assume others want to do the same. On the other hand, I feel that my daughter has every right to not answer the questions if she doesn't want to. The video certainly brought forth a lot of inappropriateness and it sure gives a person something to think about. I always wonder if people do these things out of ignorance, like using the word retarded (my August 27 blog). Anyway, good post. Thanks for sharing. We live in a complicated, complex world.

  4. LOL! I imagine that shuts most people down fairly quickly. I'll have remember that one. :)

  5. Your comment brought to mind several things, Linda. I think that there is an expectation now that we share more of our personal lives with more people (and sooner) than we used to, that fuels some of the personal questions. And I think that most of the behaviour in the video comes largely of ignorance. I was fascinated to read, in a blog post that a woman wrote about telling people that she's chosen not to have children, that she routinely encounters probing personal questions and some very judgemental statements in response - it made me think, as I did when I watched that video, "That's very rude and very inappropriate and people really should know better!" And I think that the cause there is ignorance as well.

    I think that your feelings about how your daughter should have the right to answer questions about her disability are right on. I've always liked the response, "Sure, you can ask me a personal question. I might not answer - but go ahead and ask." :) That only works if people have the courtesy to ask if they can ask a person question, though...

  6. If anyone ever asks me whether men who use wheelchairs can have sex, I now know where to refer them for the answer. :)

  7. Just noticed the pingback, thank you! Interesting discussion. I do think people are naturally curious, and can usually tell the the difference between a genuine question and shit-stirring.

    And like you, I have more time for kids than adults who behave like kids. As for 'the question' I guess I answer because it highlights their own stupidity. Ask a stupid question, get a truthful answer.

    Have you read this article/post on inspiration porn?

  8. I have spina bifida. I use crutches to ambulate. I'm fine with questions about my disability, but can I at least get a "Hello, sir", first? What ever happened to acknowledging a person's existence.

    I'm an atheist, and I like to think that I am tolerant of others' views, but I do get angry when it is forced on me. Oh, well. That's my shortcoming.

    I do think somehow it's OK in the able-bodied community to treat the disabled rudely. Somehow, maybe we are viewed as less formal than our able-bodied counterparts. I know that if I am in line to purchase something, everybody else may be "sir" or "ma'am", and I'll be "buddy" or "bro".

    It would be interesting to be able-bodied...for a month. I'd just love an extra glimpse of some of the mindsets that plague their, and perhaps our, community.