A few years ago at LAX, my flight had arrived early, and I sat alone, waiting for my ride to weave through L.A traffic to pick me up. Bored, I tried to kill some time by scrolling through Facebook. I looked up just in time to see a man walking towards me.
He stopped right in front of my chair and started with my all-time favorite line, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but…”
Here we go.
“…why are you in a wheelchair?”
“Actually,” I replied, “I do mind you asking.”
I get this question a lot and 99% of the time from people I do not know. Some, like the man in the airport, will blurt it out first thing, without even saying ‘hello’ or asking my name. Others might have a polite 2-minute conversation before they work it in but it’s always the same.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking…” The funny thing is, everyone who says that phrase at the beginning of an inappropriate question thinks that it pardon them, and therefore it seems obligatory to answer. But as I grow up, I realize more and more that I do not owe anyone an answer to something so personal.
It is common courtesy to avoid asking invasive questions of people you do not know well, yet that courtesy seems not to apply to people with disabilities. A lot of people who ask about my disability exit the conversation right after I answer, as if it were the only thing they wanted to know about me, the only thing that mattered.
While my disability is an integral part of who I am, it is not all of me. I am a recent college graduate, I have a pug that I love, I’m a sister, a daughter, a friend. I am a woman in a wheelchair-a badass one, in fact, but the chair is not everything there is to learn about me. So, if you see a person with a disability and have a sudden wave of curiosity engulf you, take a moment to think if it is an appropriate question.
Get to know the person and enjoy their company and, if you feel that the two of you have reached a level where the question is not invasive, then it may be a time you can ask. Overall, delight in the conversation as you would be with anyone else.