It seems like almost every day I am faced with an awkward encounter with a stranger, whether it be in a coffee shop, the mall, or even on the Internet -- and more likely than not, that awkward encounter centers around questions about my disability, or how I live my life as a disabled person. I recognize that nine times out of 10 people aren't trying to be inappropriate or make me uncomfortable; they're just genuinely curious or concerned. That doesn't mean their questions are OK. Every time I address this, people's response is, "But I don't know what to say." I decided to help them out, in easy-to-use "listicle" form, of course. So, without further ado, I present five questions you should never ask a wheelchair user, and what you can ask instead:
1. "What is wrong with you?" / "Why are you in a wheelchair?" Typically, when I get this question, it is from a complete stranger who has not even bothered to say hello or speak more than two words to me. Starting off the conversation by asking me about my private medical history is never OK -- and if you feel compelled to ask me about my disability, do it with a little more tact and respect. As a lifelong wheelchair user, I will tell you there is nothing "wrong" with me, and that my wheelchair is just a tool I use to get around. However, when this is the first question you ask, it shows that you don't see anything else except my wheelchair.
What to say instead: "Hi, how are you?" I want to be seen as a person, just like everyone else. This is a much better way to start a conversation with a stranger than to immediately start asking about their wheelchair, or other visible disability or medical condition. When you get to know somebody better, it may be OK to ask them about their disability -- just always make sure you do it respectfully. Questions like "What's wrong with you?" are never OK!
2. "Where is your parent/caregiver?" I often get this question from strangers who assume I need help doing something when I'm out at the mall or in some other public space, but it's super problematic because it strips me of my competency and assumes I always need help or supervision. I am a woman in my 20s, not a child, and I don't appreciate being treated like I need a babysitter.
What to say instead: "Can I help you?" / "Do you need some help?" If you see a disabled person out in public, and it looks like they may need help, the best thing to do is simply to ask them if that is the case. This gives the person the opportunity to accept the help if they need it, or politely decline it if they don't, and respects their autonomy. Just remember, if somebody declines your offer for help, respect that and move on. Do not try to force someone to accept help if they don't want it!
3. "Do you have a license to drive that thing?" I get this one from people who think they're being funny by making some kind of driving joke about my wheelchair. It can come in many variations, including but not limited to: "Can you get a speeding ticket in that thing?" "Can you get a ticket for drinking and driving in that chair?" etc. The thing is that these jokes are not funny, and I've heard them 1,000 times. All they do is make me feel uncomfortable and create an awkward situation where neither person knows how to respond.
What to say instead: "Hi, how are you doing?" Usually it seems that people default to awkward wheelchair jokes when they don't know what to say but they want to say something. Tired and overused jokes just make wheelchair users uncomfortable and elicit sighs and eye-rolling. As with the first item on the list, a simple hello is a much better option.
4. "What would she like to eat/drink?" OK, so this one isn't really a question directed towards wheelchair users, and that is precisely the problem. So many times when I go out to places such as restaurants, bars, or coffee shops -- particularly with a non-visibly-disabled person joining me -- whoever is serving us will automatically ask my companion what I would like to order. This is problematic because it automatically assumes that I cannot speak for myself and need someone who appears able-bodied to do it for me.
What to say instead: "What would you like to order?" The solution in this case is quite simple. Instead of addressing the question to others, ask the person what they would like. If for some reason they can't answer, others will let you know, and step in, but you're always better off talking to a person, rather than ignoring them and speaking to those around them.
5. "Can you have sex?" / "How do you have sex?" Bonus points for this variation: "I've always wanted to have sex with a girl in a wheelchair -- are you interested?" I can't believe I actually have to write this, but I've gotten this question more than you can possibly imagine, and it is never, ever OK. I really don't know what possesses people to ask questions like this. I typically hear it in clubs, bars or on dating sites, presumably as some sort of pick-up line. However, it is definitely not a pick-up line and it is definitely not OK. It's awkward, inappropriate, uncomfortable, and sometimes it can even feel borderline threatening. Asking a stranger about intimate details of their life is not OK simply because the person is different from you. If for some reason we are in a situation where you need to know the answer to this question, I can promise you, you will. Otherwise, if you're "just curious," as I've heard so many times when I've gotten this question, use Google! I am a person and I deserve to be treated with respect. I am not here to answer any and all bizarre questions you may have about disability.
What to say instead: Literally anything else. If you want to try flirting with me, go ahead. Offer to buy me a drink, take me out for coffee, ask me to dance, or just have a normal conversation with me. But do not, I repeat do not under any circumstances ask me inappropriate questions like how I have sex! It makes me feel objectified and less than human, and reminds me that you see me as nothing more than an oddity or a fetish.
The most important thing to remember when interacting with wheelchair users is that we want to be treated like anybody else. The general rule when asking wheelchair users questions is to just ask yourself, "Would I be asking this question if this person weren't in a wheelchair?" If the answer is yes, then go ahead and ask it. If the answer is no, then don't. Try to think about how you would feel if somebody asked you these questions. If your question would make you uncomfortable, then you probably shouldn't ask me.