Inappropriate Questions: What Not to Ask

By The mobileWOMEN Team

OK, let's face it. Often when you use a wheelchair for mobility, you are a target, for not only staring but sometimes, for very strange or inappropriate questions. Most people have good intentions but sometimes you just have to shake your head and wonder why they think it's OK to ask these questions.

Often it stems from a lack of knowledge when it comes to disability. Sometimes, it feels like you are a rarely-seen mystical unicorn! Gradually, this lack of representation is changing with more inclusion and diversity in the media, television shows etc. but we still have a long way to go.

When on the receiving end, sometimes you just need to roll away but ideally it is best to try to educate people and help them to understand that we are just the same as everyone else. Once they see the commonalities that exist between us, those barriers will gradually disappear. It is our hope that this article can be a learning tool towards that goal, so please share with your able-bodied friends.

That being said, we approached some mobileWOMEN contributors and asked them to share a few of the strangest (or most inappropriate) question(s) that they’ve ever been asked.

"Were you injured because you were hit by a train?" asked the woman who walked across the hall from me.
   "Ummm, no."
   "Oh because I once heard about that happening to someone and I thought it might be you."
   "No, wasn't me."

“Do you know my friend so-and-so who is also in a wheelchair?”

mw Comment: One in five people have a disability so there are literally millions of us. We do not all know one another and we all are unique, in every way. It’s kind of like meeting someone who is Chinese and assuming that they must know your Chinese neighbor!
Do you sleep in your wheelchair?

mW Comment: No, we transfer into beds and if we can't independently, we get help. Sitting in a chair for too long is uncomfortable and can cause pressure sores.
When I was single, I decided to try dating online. I agreed to talk on the phone with a man who contacted me, before meeting in-person. His first question to me wasn't, "What are your interests/hobbies/favorite food or movies" but instead he went directly to "Can you have sex?". Needless to say, I wasn't on the site very long before I removed my profile.

mW: Probably best not to jump to that question right away. We like to date, like anyone else and get to know each other first. If we feel comfortable enough to discuss that subject, we’ll let you know..

One time I was in my power wheelchair with my service dog, in a grocery store. A woman came up to me and asked, "Do you have that dog because you are blind?". I spent the rest of the day, trying to figure out how that would work…
mw Comment: Service dogs are specifically trained for various disabilities including blindness, mobility issues, anxiety, epilepsy etc. Each disability has different needs. For example, a person in a wheelchair may need the door opened, an item picked up or even help dressing. Some people may not be comfortable explaining their disability to a complete stranger.

One time my Mom was coming over to help me with a bathroom situation. I guess she was telling a friend about it and the friend said to my Mom, "Well can't she walk to the bathroom?".

"Did you get hurt by falling out of a tree?"

mW Comment: Everyone's situation is unique. Each disability is different and in fact, each person with the same disability or injury varies tremendously so it is best NOT to make assumptions.

I have a condition called “Osteogenesis Imperfecta” commonly known as “Brittle Bone Disease”. Because I am very petite in stature, I had a client ask me if I was a "midget".

In my late teens, I worked as an intern with seniors and one of my residents with dementia asked me my age. I told her I was 19 and she then said "You didn't grow very much did you?" Still makes me laugh when I think about it.

I was in a bar with a few girlfriends and met this guy. We started talking and somehow got on the subject of dating. I remember him saying to me. "Do you think people won't date you because you are crippled?"! That is and always has been, one of my least favorite words.

Someone that I had just met in college asked me, "So, how long have you been crippled?" I genuinely think he came from an extremely small town and had no idea what terminology to use. Me, coming from a big city like Atlanta, hearing this was crazy to me! (years later, he apologized.)

mW: No one likes labels and the words "crippled" and "handicapped” are definitely outdated. It's OK to be curious but it's important to be tactful and get to know the person first before you ask personal questions about their disability. Disability does not define a person and there are many facets to us just as anyone else.

The hardest questions for me are the ones I used to get about my ability to mother. I would be out actually DOING the activity and I would have people ask me: "How on earth can you grocery shop with 7 kids and in a wheelchair?"

"Aren't you scared to drive like you do with your kids?"

mW: Questioning someone’s ability, can be hurtful. It is much more empowering to give an encouraging comment.

NOTE: In order for someone with a disability to get a license, they have a rigorous process to go through including an assessment, working with an instructor to find the suitable equipment needed and modifications made to the vehicle and a standard driving test. They are more than competent by the time they are on the road.

However, the worst by far was when I was asked if I thought God paralyzed me as a punishment for leaving the Church. Yes, a church "friend" said this.

mW Comment: Just as those not disabled, we all have very different beliefs, faiths and religions so it is best not to inflict yours on to others.

OK, this is actually what I am NOT asked. I always think it's strange when someone asks the people who are with me instead of me, if I need something like what I want to eat or if I can navigate my chair to a certain location.

mW Comment: Don't be afraid to talk to us directly. Even if we were unable to speak, chances are we have a way to communicate and know what our needs are better than anyone.

We would love for you to share the article with your experiences on Facebook with suggestions on how you would prefer to be approached. Together, we can shift the dialogue by educating others and create a world where we are all one.

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