I don’t know about anyone else, but growing up my family always told me “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”. Well, I’m not sure that I believe that to be entirely true, because the reality is, words DO have the power to either hurt or empower someone. I had two separate encounters in three weeks that inspired this particular post. As I’ve matured and become more comfortable with myself, so too has my comfort level in very openly, and intimately, discussing my conditions. I try to nurture an environment where those closest to me feel comfortable enough to ask me questions. My thoughts behind this were that if I allowed people to feel comfortable asking questions, I could try to steer the narrative, as well as (politely) educate others on what is appropriate versus inappropriate. That being said, humans are not perfect and sometimes missteps and ill-chosen words are said, and offense is sometimes taken.
I will always answer a question, however, that doesn’t mean that one’s language does not matter. Below, I’m going to state each of the questions word-for-word as they were asked and highlight why each was offensive, as well as offering an alternative to the question.
1. What is wrong with you?
This was the most offensive to me, and it would have taken a huge chunk out of my pride a few years ago. First, asking someone “what is wrong with you” immediately suggests that their state of being is deviant, not of the normal or average. I will resist the urge to be hyper-technical, but my state of being is normal to me, whereas being able-bodied is not. What would stop a person with a disability from asking that very question to an able-bodied person? Can you imagine the offense that they would feel? Well, it goes both ways.
May I ask why you walk the way that you do?
If the question was asked in this manner, I would feel so much more respected! I do recognize that my walking is unique, and I do not fault someone for recognizing that, or for being curious. However, when you chose to empower their being, instead of diminishing them, you will get a lot further; at least that’s the way that I view it. By asking the question in this manner, you put the person with a disability in a position of power. Be mindful too that you may not necessarily be dealing with a disability, but a limitation such as an injury, or prior surgery. This language is inclusive as opposed to divisive.
2. Would you be different if it were possible?
This question isn’t as directly insulting or blatant. That being said, it is still a thorn in my side. I suppose it’s because it makes me feel as though my life is less valuable, or not as amazing because of my conditions. In a post that I dedicated to Claire Wineland, I discussed how Claire inspired others to live their lives and find the beauty within it, despite sometimes being sick. You can find that post here (http://iammorethanadisability.com/life-lessons-of-love-illness-and-acceptance-a-tribute-to-claire-wineland/).
I would be lying to someone if I said that I haven’t thought about a life without Hydrocephalus and Cerebral Palsy. I think I’d like to spend one day without either condition. That being said, I wouldn’t want a life without the very things that made me who I am. That isn’t to say that my entire identity is made up of those two elements, I am more than the sum of them. That being said, so much of who I am was influenced by the things I learned from my lens on the world as a person with a disability.
Is there something that is difficult for you to do because of your conditions? How can I support you?
Rewording the question in this manner does two things: one, you acknowledge that yes, the reality is that some tasks are difficult and that assistance could be needed, however, the emphasis is on inclusion and independence, versus another taking charge of the situation and doing it their way. This is something I experience at work frequently. The reality is that some tasks are more difficult than others. But with support and teamwork, we can divide tasks based upon strengths, instead of highlighting weaknesses.
Self-esteem, self-worth, and identity are three things that are so intimately connected to each other. Each of those is also largely influenced by other’s perceptions, and the words they use to describe us. Be mindful when choosing them. Be respectful by asking. Be kind! At the end of the day, we’re all trying to do the best we can with the cards we were dealt. The world would be exponentially more united if we were kinder, more understanding, as well as forgiving of each other and the blunders that we sometimes make.