People are weird. Not you, you’re lovely. I mean those people. You know, the other ones. I’ve written in the past about how having a disability seems to mean that usual social norms don’t apply, and that you’re completely fair game to be asked absolutely anything – from how you cut your food, to how you brush your teeth, to how you wipe your backside. (Answer – not at the same time. I’m here all week).
In a recent moment of sobriety I’ve started to ponder this further, and the prevalence of one question in particular; one question that I’ve been asked quite literally hundreds of times throughout my life, that I’ll quite often respond to almost out of reflex simply because I’m so used to being asked it. I’ve only started to notice how often I get asked this question since I’ve started living with other people and coming home remarking about encounters I’ve had during the day, or, for better or worse, having them witness the frankly bizarre encounters for themselves.
The old classic I’m referring to – and I’m absolutely certain I’m not the only one who hears this on a regular basis – is, “What happened to you?”
Now, allow me to explain something to the non-disableds reading. Disabled people don’t tend to go around in a constant state of awareness or preoccupation about their disability, spending every second fretting about having bits missing or that don’t work in the same way as normals. A lot of the time, I’m instead chiefly concerned with the fact that I got dressed in the dark or that I’ve run out of milk (at home, not in my body). As a result, when people come up to me and say, “What happened to you?” there’s usually a brief period of mild terror where I question whether or not I look like a tramp and/or actually went out in just my Batman pants. It can take a second before realising they’re actually asking how I came about my impairment.
I often wonder after these conversations what people’s reasons are for asking this. Is it to put them at peace? Will they walk away more contented knowing I popped out of ladybits (hi mum) already footloose and handsy-free? Would they feel better or worse had I told them I’d suffered four completely separate, highly implausible amputation accidents like the Black Knight from Monty Python? The mindset is indeed, boggling.
As a younger man, a friend and I used to test this theory to a degree by making up ridiculous stories as to why I didn’t have arms or legs, and telling them to people when they asked. As well as the usual such as shark attack, rogue SAS agent and the like, we also had some quite creative ones. Particular favourites were that I had a combine harvester fetish, and that narcolepsy and a love of smoothies didn’t quite mix. It’s amazing how many of them people seemed happy to hear. Like, properly happy. Like I say, people are weird.
Mentioning Batman has got me thinking. Maybe that’s what non-disabled people are thinking – they assume a tragic childhood, see some cool gadgets and make a weird mental leap. Maybe that’s what they’re hoping for with these grossly inappropriate questions – that i’m going to provide them with some neat little self-contained comic book story, where I’m the victim of something horrible and have to overcome it and live happily after. Sorry to piss on your chips folks but I ain’t a millionaire in disguise.
Sadly the truth is much colder than that. It’s simply that many non-disabled people still cannot see past someone’s impairment or condition or assistive device or animal or whatever as DEFINING WHO THEY ARE. In fact it goes even further – it’s that they think a whole person’s life, thoughts, dreams and flaws and foibles revolve around that one thing.
Now, I’d like to think that if I was walking down the street and I saw someone with a big blue face, my first thought wouldn’t be, “Why have they got a big blue face?” and then to run up to them shouting, “EXCUSE ME WHY HAVE YOU GOT A BIG BLUE FACE?” It would actually be “shit, I don’t think that was sugar on my Frosties.” But perhaps that’s what living with such a visible and inescapable impairment teaches you. As much as I’m quite enamoured with the idea of going up to random strangers and asking them their complete biographical history, I just don’t think I could do it.
As for my own situation, I’ve considered a sign. I considered printing out little cards. But I realised these are probably only likely to attract attention, not deflect it. And I don’t like people. I barely like myself. I don’t want to encourage them. So I decided I’d do what all misanthropic media types do in situations like this, and that’s blog about it. That’ll learn ‘em. Cheerio.