Dec 16, 2011

Weird questions

My friend Larry from Rowland Heights, California asks:

Do people ask you weird things about you [because you're in a wheelchair]? ... What's the weirdest thing you've been asked?


Interestingly, this topic came up during an encounter with Jocelyn from GimpHacks just the other week. In another incident, Tiffany Carlson wrote yesterday at New Mobility about someone asking if her boyfriend was paralyzed too. There is certainly a strange tendency for absolute strangers to ask weird questions to wheelchair users, for whatever reason. Some of these questions can get quite personal.

In general, I do not mind if people who know me or friends ask me questions. They are often hesitant to even ask in fear of offending or embarrassing me. (Their restrained curiosity and hesitation, in part, led to the creation of this blog.) I try to make it clear that since they know me, it is fine to ask questions, which is better than assuming things.

However, there are certain factors involved if someone wishes to ask me something related to my condition:

-how well the person knows me
-how close I am to that person
-whether that person needs to know the information
-whether that person would freak out at the answer to sensitive questions (even though that person wanted to know in the first place!)

With that said, things get strange when absolute strangers ask me questions. The questions can range from something very general (such as "How long have you been in a wheelchair?") to something very specific and personal (such as "Can you have sex?").

No matter how intimate the question is, when a stranger asks questions related to my condition within one hour of meeting me, it feels like he/she is not seeing me primarily as a person but rather he/she is putting my disability first before everything else.

Interestingly, questions about my equipment (such as my wheelchair) do not bug me as much. One reason is because I tend to be a "gear snob/nerd" myself sometimes and also because the people who tend to ask about equipment often fall into four categories: 1) senior citizens, 2) other people with a disability, 3) people who have friends/relatives with disability or 4) healthcare equipment professionals who happen to talk to me. These people are interested in mobility equipment mostly because they benefit from it or already know something about it. I have yet to meet someone interested in my equipment who does not fall into one of those four categories.

When it comes to friends and people I know, the appropriateness of questions tends to change. One big reason is because they have come to know me as a person first, putting the disability in second place as a result. Any information I give them will always be in second place after my personality.

That is why they feel like they can ask intimate questions like "Can you have sex?" and honestly expect me to answer. However, I wish they would stop freaking out at some of the answers. I remember explaining the bladder emptying process for people with paralysis and getting quite the reaction; if you ask the question, be prepared for the "no holds barred" truth! (I found the freak-out to be hilarious though; I can be quite evil sometimes.)

In closing, I think it is inappropriate to ask about someone's physical condition if you do not know that person very well. However, a free pass may be given to questions about someone's wheelchair or mobility equipment as long as you have some personal interest in it, either through your own medical condition, profession or relationship to someone who uses the same equipment.

And if in doubt, you can try sending the question to this blog and I will see if it can be answered publicly.


  1. It's interesting that the factors you mention all relate to *the person asking*.

    My first factor would be "do I have time to answer this properly right now?" and my second would be "do I feel comfortable discussing this subject in this scenario?"

    On the one hand, if people don't ask they won't learn. On the other hand, a lot of people's questions they could figure out for themselves by thinking for ten seconds, and I don't believe disabled people have to provide a free Public Education Programme every time we go out for a coffee.

    That's why I like the idea of this blog. You've created a space where you will answer questions *you* feel comfortable answering, when it's convenient for *you* to do so and which allows you and your commenters to use tools like anonymity or linking to other sources.

    1. Thanks!

      People should feel comfortable asking – but only if they know the person (not a total stranger). Obviously, it does help to "think for ten seconds" since some things are common sense. :)

      One thing that drives me nuts is people who wonder certain things and don't take the time to ask, but instead go on Google and find whatever information they can – whether it is correct or not.

      For example, on some sites like Yahoo Answers, I see people who have a question about spinal cord injuries and the answers would be from people who have no experience with the condition except for what they read online or what they assume. As you can imagine, the "best answer" is often one of those possibly-incorrect answers.

      While it is silly that some people would believe everything they read or claim to be experts based on what they find on Google searches, I feel that some of us should make an effort to try to combat this – hence this blog. :)