Sitting in a pharmacy, waiting for a prescription in a queue of four or five people, I hear someone say: “What’s your complaint?” It jolted me out of my daze of deciding what I’ll have for dinner later. “What’s your complaint?” the man says again. It’s the pharmacist. I realise he’s talking to me.
I set aside the thoughts of rosemary- and lemon-roasted chicken and tell him that I have no complaints. Well, none that I’d like to share publicly.
“No, I mean, why are you in a wheelchair?”
There is a right time and a wrong time to ask that question and you probably don’t need me to tell you that a queue for a prescription in a pharmacy is not the right time.
When you live your life with a physical disability, a lot of people think your life story is up for grabs and that their interest overrides whatever you are doing at that very moment. They ask “Were you in an accident?” – apropos of the fact that we are temporarily sharing the same airspace – and when my answer is no, there’s an wave of disappointment.
Asking someone if they were in an accident is possibly one of the rudest and most ignorant things you can ask someone with a physical disability. Knowing absolutely nothing about their background, you could be asking someone who’s living with PTSD and they haven’t quite found the words to describe what they’ve been through. Or you could be asking someone like me who wasn’t in an accident but was born with a disability and is tired of having to serve up their alleged woes on the whim of a stranger.
There are times when I’d rather not talk to anyone and simply dream of rosemary- and lemon-roasted chicken rather than dive into the spiel of, “well, I was born with a walking disability and started using crutches at the age of three”. Because this spiel comes with three great bulging arcs and a one-word answer won’t do. When I tell my story, I have to tend to these arcs – for I enjoy a good story – but I also have to figure out ways to avoid sympathy from strangers. I can’t handle sympathy because if I dwell too much on what I don’t have, I wouldn’t get very far in life. None of us will, truth be told.
No sadness left
Plus, I have no sadness left to feel on that topic. To be upset about the fact that I use a wheelchair every day is the equivalent of being sad that your left shoe belongs to your left foot and not your right. It’s very much just the way it is and it would be silly of me to get emotional about the things that I cannot change.
However, there is something I can try to change and that is how disabled people are perceived by non-disabled people, starting with learning when is the right time to ask about their “complaint”. It’s not in the queue of a pharmacy, it’s not when you’re waiting at the bar for a drink or sharing an elevator. It’s not the first thing you ask when you are introduced to them at a party, a business meeting or at a funeral.
It’s not when you’re waiting at the same set of pedestrian lights.
It’s not when you’ve spent 10 or 15 minutes in their company. It’s not when they’re in the middle of a lively conversation with friends and you’re just dying to butt in. It’s not in front of a crowd, leaving them on the spot to answer to not just one person but a roomful of people.
Before you ask someone why they are in a wheelchair, ask yourself why you want to know
Of course, these time limits and rules vary per person. I throw all the rules out the window whenever a handsome man asks me, because I am a fickle queen at the best of times.
Before you ask someone why they are in a wheelchair, ask yourself why you want to know. If it’s to sate your own curiosity that you cannot contain, then you’re doing it for yourself. If you’re a nurse, a doctor or a physio, you’re just doing your job.
If you’re doing it to know the person better and further your relationship through an exchange of life stories, then you’re on the right track.
Platform Series - Louise Bruton
1) Sexual health
2) Day I started using a wheelchair
3) 'Wheelchair-friendly' rooms
4) Please don't ask me
6) Asking for help
7) Things you learn in a wheelchair
8) Sex and disability in the spotlight
9) I spend much of my time waiting
10) People with disabilities need allies