What’s with the stick?
Oh no, what’s happened to you?
What’s wrong with you?
I can see where these questions come from. I’ve asked them myself (except for the last one, which seems really off, to me). They’re well meant. They’re compassionate. Sympathetic. They recognise that I am injured, and they want to know why. They want to know if I’ll be ok. They want to know what’s going on with me. And from close friends, those questions are obviously fine. But from acquaintances, or even strangers, I’ve been getting increasingly uncomfortable with them.
The story around my hip and back issues is long, complicated, and not particularly interesting. I have a lot of pain, which is exhausting, and I don’t particularly want to have to explain the details several times a day. In fact, I don’t really want to explain the details at all. So I tend to brush it off with “it’s complicated, but I’m getting better.” Often this results in tales of hip replacements (which I don’t need) and offers of referrals to specialists – which, again, are well intentioned, but misplaced. I have a team. My well being is a work in progress. I don’t need your advice, your medical history, or the horror story of your friend and her hip replacement.
But it wasn’t until my daughter shared this article from The Conversation in her Instagram Story, and it included the comment “It is inappropriate to ask people about their diagnosis or impairment if not related to the topic at hand” that it dawned on me that, actually, even though people ask with good intentions, it’s ok to defend my privacy, to deflect, and to say “I really don’t want to go into detail.” And it’s NOT ok to ask people why and how they are impaired.
Like I said, I’m sure I have asked those questions. And it applies to trans people, too (not that being trans is an impairment!). Cisgendered people (ie not trans) want to show their support, and sometimes they do it by asking a lot of questions. Questions like: Are you on hormones? Have you had surgery? When did you know you were trans?
Not that being trans is a disability. But trans folks and disabled folks are faced with similar lines of intrusive questioning. “What’s wrong with you? What medical treatments have you had? What treatments are you going to have?” Along with a whole heap of unwanted advice. We should not be asking people about their medical treatment, or diagnoses, or why they are using mobility aids. It’s not our business. Just stop. Please.
In Sydney last week I was getting into an uber when a random stranger nearby decided I needed help. She was tiny, and kind of frail, and in the same breath as asking if I needed help, she picked up my heavy bag (which I was very capable of lifting myself) and slung it into the uber, tried to help me as I got into the car, and then helped make sure my skirt wasn’t going to get shut in the car door. All the while ignoring my response that I was ok, thanks, and did not need help. She was extremely well intentioned. As I thanked her she said “My husband is in a wheelchair, I know.” She was trying to help. I didn’t actually need help, I just needed time and space to get myself into the very low slung car (a problem for tall folks with mobility issues), and I was ungainly. I did appreciate her help. I was happy to have met such a kind person. But at the same time I could see how someone else might have felt disempowered by her leaping in and giving help where it wasn’t wanted or needed.
I have a close friend who I call my adoptive big brother. He is an impressive human being in many ways, but one of the things that always strikes me when I spend time with him is how alert he is to the people around him. He doesn’t leap in where he’s not needed, but he is aware of anyone struggling around him, and he will just pause to make sure they’re ok before he moves on. That is incredible compassion and understanding. Many of us, with compassion but less understanding, will leap in and try to help where it’s not wanted. My big brother just checks that they’re ok, and doesn’t intervene until it’s really necessary. And even then, he will ask, and honour the response.
It’s that sensitivity to people’s autonomy that is difficult for most of us, but something we should all be striving for.
It’s ok to want confirmation that someone is ok. It’s ok to want to know what’s going on with them. But maybe we need to stop, more often, and ask ourselves “is this something I need to know?” “Is this really my business?” “Am I asking very personal questions?” and just stop before we get started. It’s also ok to ask if there’s anything we can do, but be prepared to be told “no”, and honour it.
Start from the assumption that people are private, and autonomous, and you won’t go far wrong.