Many years ago when I worked in childcare, I had a boss that used a wheelchair. One afternoon, she was speaking to the mother of a six-year old girl when the daughter interrupted.
“Is it fun?” the girl asked.
“Is what fun?” the boss replied.
“Being in a wheelchair?” the girl continued, “Only, it looks kinda fun.”
The mother gave an audible gasp.
“Tabitha,” she hissed, “You can’t say that sort of thing!”
The staff exchanged discomfited looks and suppressed embarrassed smiles but the boss, ignoring us all, turned to look Tabitha right in the eye.
“Sometimes it’s fun,” she told the girl seriously, “like how I can go really fast down steep hills or how I always get my own seat even when other people have to stand. But when a building only has steps, or I can’t carry things, or I can’t reach a high shelf then it isn’t so much fun anymore.”
Tabitha thought deeply for a moment with her head on one side.
“Yes!” she said finally, “I can see how that would be annoying.”
With a satisfied nod, she headed for the door, leaving her mum to offer frantic apologies in her wake.
“It was an important question,” the boss assured Tabitha’s mother, “and now she knows the answer she’ll better understand what other wheelchair users deal with when she meets them in future.”
Once the mother was out of earshot, a colleague commented how well the boss had handled an awkward situation.
“Trust me,” the boss replied, “that wasn’t awkward. Awkward is when adults are too scared to ask what they’re obviously thinking so they ignore me to my face and then stare at my back when they think I can’t see them.”
Impressed with her attitude, her words were to have a lasting impression on me.
Now disabled myself, it is commonplace to encounter adults that won’t meet my eye but will stare at my back when they think I can’t see them. I have met parents who would rather carry a push-chair up a flight of stairs than wait for a lift while their baby chattered to me, or have seen parents smack or scold their children simply for offering to hold open a door. Some adults think it is OK to move me out of their way like an abandoned shopping trolley, while others won’t sit near me in a waiting room or leave the room completely rather than make conversation with a wheelchair user.
I never imagined in twenty-first century Britain this sort of behaviour was still so widespread. It makes me wonder what sort of offences I have been responsible for over the years when dealing with disabled people.
That is why, like my old boss, I find it so refreshing when kids have the guts to just ask what they’re thinking. It breaks the awkward silence that no one knows how to fill. It shows that they’re interested and that they aren’t afraid of me. It demonstrates their willingness to try to understand my disability so they’ll be better informed when they meet other disabled people in the future. I sometimes wish adults would ask questions too if it would help break down whatever mental barrier makes them feel so uncomfortable around me.
So when a neighbour recently asked whether I’d had to take a driving test to own an electric wheelchair, I wasn’t offended. I was as surprised as he was to discover I could drive on public roads without first having to prove my fitness to do so.
When an elderly lady asked how long I’d ‘been like that then’, I wasn’t offended, because (despite her politically incorrect language) her question clearly stemmed from genuine concern rather than from voyeurism.
And when a five-year old, clutching a sonic-screwdriver, ran over to ask if I’d ‘robbed’ my chair off a Dalek, I wasn’t offended; I told him if the other Daleks came looking for me he’d have to use his sonic-screwdriver to get rid of them.
Now I cannot speak for all disabled people and I’m by no means advocating that you start accosting strangers in the street with inappropriate questions about their sex lives or toileting habits (any question too intimate to ask an able-bodied person will be equally inappropriate to ask of disabled people too). As a general rule however, if the answer to a question will help you relate to my situation or feel more comfortable around my disability, I’d far rather you asked than refused to speak at all, or pretended not to stare behind my back.
So long as your question stems from a genuine desire to understand my disability, I can almost guarantee that I won’t be offended.
So, any questions?