by Deborah Kendrick
From the Editor: The following column first appeared in the Columbus Dispatch on Sunday, June 5, 2011. It is reprinted from the summer 2011 issue of Que Pasa, the publication of the NFB of New Mexico. Deborah Kendrick is a Cincinnati writer and advocate for people with disabilities. You can reach her at <email@example.com>.
When meeting someone with a disability, some cross the line. There's a certain kind of assault unique to people with visible disabilities. It's an assault on privacy, an overstepping of boundaries, an occasional aberration that can ruin your whole day. "Sooo, what happened to you?" is the bluntest, most raw form of the invasion. And it usually catches you off guard. Imagine yourself daydreaming at the swimming pool or riding the bus home from work, and suddenly a stranger is in your face with such a question.
The sniper-like surprises can occur anywhere. Sometimes they're more specifically directed. In an elevator or a doctor's waiting room, a stranger might suddenly ask me, "Is your husband blind too, or what?"
Or maybe I'm at an awards luncheon, and after such getting-to-know-you topics as the salad dressing and the hot rolls have been exhausted, the guy beside me might casually inquire, "How'd you lose your sight?" It doesn't happen often, but most people with a disability that can be seen know the experience. Gripped by curiosity, complete strangers or acquaintances abruptly demand personal information in a way they would ordinarily consider unthinkable. How did disability strike? Was it accident or disease? And how do you function in such a state?
I'm not talking about the constructive curiosity that helps us communicate better with someone who has a disability. It's OK to ask how one gets the wheelchair into the car, how a guide dog knows to find the door, or if a deaf person is able to read your lips. What's not OK is to fire intimate questions of personal history at someone you barely know.
Think about it. Would you ask a black person what it feels like to be black? A white person if her spouse is white? Or a fat person how long he's been that way? One Vietnam veteran who uses a wheelchair told me that people will actually ask him if his children are biologically his own. What is it, I'd like to know, about that wheelchair that gives people the idea they have permission to interrogate a man about his sex life?
For me one of the most offensive inquiries is when I'm asked if my husband is blind too. What is the translation here? First, that I must have a husband because I couldn't possibly take care of myself? And next, if my husband has normal vision, the interloper can feel relieved that there must be, after all, someone behind the scenes to take care of me? Or, if my husband is blind or has some other disability, that we are appropriately keeping to our own kind? Marrying within the ranks?
Does this sound angry? Well maybe just exasperated, but here's the reality: People with disabilities can sometimes be angry. They can also feel humiliation, amusement, rage, and pain, just as their nondisabled peers do. People with disabilities come in all racial, sexual, and economic packages, and they have good days and bad ones. For most of us, though, a time arrives when the disability itself takes a decided back seat to life. The nuts and bolts of living take priority over specific limitations.
Don't get me wrong: It's not that we forget that we can't see or run or speak quite the same as others. You never forget entirely—because disability, like any personal trait, is a factor that, when you have it, becomes integrated into your total personality. But once the adaptations have been learned and the abilities discovered, disability generally loses its center-stage status.
People with disabilities, just like people without them, spend emotion and energy in three basic areas: our work, our play, and our relationships with others. Remember that the next time you meet someone with a disability--and, if the urge still washes over you to ask how they "got that way," ask yourself instead how you got to be so rude and find a more sociable approach to conversation.