Update: This post has also been featured on The Mighty! Check it out here.
I’m just browsing the bakery section of the grocery store with my friend, Sarah Todd, one day—as people tend to do when they are searching for dinner items but get distracted by their sweet-teeth—when we hear someone approach us from behind.
We turn around to see a lady, one who works at the bakery, staring at me and smiling. When I give her a confused smile back, she opens her mouth to say something, and I brace myself for the inevitable.
“What’d you do to your leg?” she questions, pointing to the purple AFO on my left foot. I shift in my seat awkwardly, not particularly interested in explaining the story behind my disability to this stranger at the present moment. Right now, all I want to do is continue shopping, like everyone else in this grocery store.
“It’s a long story,” I politely tell her, already turning to leave the area. Maybe we can head to the candy aisle instead…
“Is it a funny story?”
I turn right back around and stare at the lady, blind-sided by this follow-up question. Her cheery expression seems to falter for a millisecond, as if she’s rethinking the words that just came out of her mouth. But still, she looks at me expectantly, waiting for my response.
Not unless you happen to find Transverse Myelitis funny. Though, we all have different senses of humor, I suppose…
“Um… N-no, not really…” I finally stutter.
Somehow, this still doesn’t satisfy her curiosity.
“Well, then, what happened?”
I want to tell the lady that it’s none of her business. I want to ask her why she feels so entitled to know my full story—a story which is very personal, an experience that was emotionally traumatic and life-altering—when she likely won’t ever see me again. I want to ask her extensive questions about her medical history as well, to show her how invasive it feels.
But I don’t. I don’t do any of that. I just briefly explain Transverse Myelitis, that it damaged my spinal cord. I tell her that the AFO’s purpose is to correct my foot drop. Luckily, this answer finally seems to satisfy her, and at that, Sarah Todd and I promptly leave the bakery section of the store.
But, as we’re walking/rolling away, Sarah Todd turns to me and, not quieting her voice in the slightest, exclaims, “That was absolutely none of her business. I can’t believe how rude she was being.”
I smile at that. Seeing as she has Transverse Myelitis and is disabled as well, I know she gets it. On the bright side, at least I have friends who are also able to recognize the ignorance of too many able-bodied people.
And also, she’s so, so right. It wasn’t any of the lady’s business, and really, I had every right to tell her off. I shouldn’t have to bypass my own comfort to appease a complete stranger.
But this is a problem that us disabled people face daily. We are asked invasive questions every time we go out, while most people probably wouldn’t even begin to consider asking able-bodied strangers things like that, or even approaching them in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong— I love raising awareness for my disorder, and any of my friends could tell you that I’m pretty open about those things. I actually encourage friends, family members, classmates, people I’m getting to know, etc. to ask questions about my disability and chronic illnesses. I want them to understand, and I’d prefer that new friends just ask rather than let it be the “elephant in the room” for too long, because that just gets awkward for everyone involved.
However, there is a time and place for those conversations. When we’re already talking to each other, getting to know each other in a friend-meeting setting? Sure, that’s a great time to bring it up, and I don’t mind at all if you do so. But when I’m just minding my own business, trying to shop like everyone else in the store or waiting for my drink like everyone else in line at Starbucks… In those cases, it is, quite frankly, absolutely none of your business.
What is it about the sight of a wheelchair or crutches or leg braces or hand splints that makes it suddenly okay to approach a random stranger and pry into their personal life?
Say you’re at the beach and notice as you pass by a random girl that she has a scar near her abdomen. Would you go up to them and ask if it came from an appendectomy?
Chances are, probably not. If you got to know her, you might find out about the scar’s origin eventually, but it’d be rude to go up to her as a stranger and ask like that. So why is it any different when it comes to us?
(Oh, and pro tip: It’s maybe not the best idea to say things like “is it because your boyfriend beat you?” as a way of asking what happened… And yes, I’ve actually gotten that. That’s just… Not okay? Like, ever? What?)