I have been posed this question many times before, and I hate it every single time. The most recent instance was when I was at work in a clinic, and I had to walk to retrieve a patient’s receipt for the day’s visit. After I returned to the front desk with the receipt in my hand, the patient asked me, quite clearly, “What’s wrong with your legs?”
Believe it or not, I’ve had to practice how to answer this question. It comes in different variations, like, what happened? or, why do you use crutches? or, why do you walk like that? and then there’s my absolute least favorite, what’s wrong with you? My answer, however, has proved to be the most direct and assertive one.
“I have a disability.” Yes, I could’ve answered with, “I have cerebral palsy,” but sometimes I don’t feel like revealing the specifics of my disability to someone I barely know, and to someone I’ll never see again, which is my decision and only mine. Thus, this answer seemed to be the one that was the most truthful, while it still withheld details that I deemed private in that moment.
Then came his answer. “Oh, I’m sorry about that.”
Sorry about what, exactly? Was he sorry that he asked, or sorry that I’m disabled? It was unclear. Regardless of a lack of clarity, though, I don’t want people to feel bad for asking me about my disability. I actually encourage it, but I wish they’d be considerate by asking me in a certain way. I find the question, “What’s wrong with your legs?” to be incredibly rude and intrusive, and in need of some serious sensitivity. It implies that there’s something wrong with me, which there isn’t. It implies that I’m somehow defective, which I am not.
There’s also the possibility that he was apologizing because I am disabled, which is deeply problematic. Having cerebral palsy is not something to mourn, or feel sorry about, or pity. It is simply a part of my narrative, and I refuse to accept such apologies because there is absolutely no need for them.
I thought I’d throw a better way to inquire about my disability, especially if one is non-disabled: can you tell me more about what life is like from your perspective as someone who is disabled? Obviously this or some other variant is way more appropriate–and polite–than asking what’s “wrong” with me. If the person asking is genuine, even better. There’s nothing more cringe-worthy than someone asking about me because they feel they are obligated to in some effort to show that they are inclusive. Trust me, I can tell when someone is being genuine, and when they are full of it.
Bottom line: Do I want someone to ask me about my disability? Sure, give it a go. Just don’t be a jerk about it, and don’t apologize to me because I’m disabled, either. It won’t be a good look. Seriously.