I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between ignorance and curiosity as it relates to my disability. I find that sometimes the distinction can be hard to pinpoint. So, I thought I’d group together some questions I’ve had to answer over the years that I personally deem ignorant or merely a sign of curiosity.
- “What’s wrong with/what happened to your legs?”
- “Why are you walking like that?”
- “What’s wrong with you?”
- “Are your feet OK?”
- “Why do you use crutches?/ What are your crutches for?”
- “Does it hurt when you walk?”
- “Can you navigate stairs?”
- “Will you let me know what I need to do, if anything?”
I should begin by defining each of these categories, or at the very least discussing how I structured them. Well, I constructed the “Ignorance” category with questions I thought demonstrated a certain lack of knowledge, education, or comprehension of the subject, (see question two: the person who asked obviously didn’t know why my gait pattern is definitely different than that of someone non-disabled).
In terms of the next category, I always thought curiosity to be a mark of a search for knowledge; a sign of interest, a desire to simply know/attain knowledge (also see question two in this category, to be discussed more in depth later on).
To me, ignorance carries a negative connotation, whereas curiosity carries a positive one. I know I wouldn’t want to appear uninformed or uneducated about something to the person I’m talking to. I’d much rather ask to learn rather than ask and possibly offend somebody. That being said, I think there’s still a gray area here that deserves some exploration. In other words, the line between the two categories is blurred by the ways society constructs (dis)ability.
Somebody might ask me a question about living while disabled, and truly/genuinely want to learn…and despite their best efforts, it could still come across as ignorance. Then again, it also could depend on who is asking me the question: is it a stranger/acquaintance? Or is it a good friend who seeks to understand me better/deeper than they already do?
The fact that the questions belonging to the “Ignorance” category were easier to conjure than the questions belonging to the “Curiosity” category is important to deconstruct. Honestly, I think that observation is a reflection on how society views disability, and their (mis)understanding of it. Just these “Ignorance” questions alone suggest that society views disability as something to be scorned; looked down upon; and that those who are disabled are less than or defected somehow.
Take the first question: “What’s wrong with your legs?” At this point in my life, it’s become so ridiculously commonplace. You’d think that I’d be used to it by now, but believe it or not, I’m still caught off guard–though I’ve just gotten better at hiding it. Once somebody I just met led with that question. Literally not even a “hello,” or “how are you?” or “It’s nice to meet you.” She just went right ahead and asked me what was wrong when she saw me walk across the room with my crutches and sit down in the seat next to hers. I wanted to respond that nothing happened to my legs. I just use crutches; that’s it. Instead I told this person that I was disabled and left it there. I didn’t feel like going into a long explanation. If this person couldn’t bother to begin the conversation another way, I wasn’t going to bother continuing it.
When I was in my last year of middle school and at a friend’s birthday party, I had just left the restroom and was walking toward the living room when somebody I didn’t know asked, “What’s wrong with you?” Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with me. My walking may look different than yours, but there’s nothing wrong with me. I can’t say that enough. Seriously, don’t ask somebody this. Yes, I was in middle school; yes, that was a long time ago…but ever wonder why I still remember it? My friend overheard, and once we were alone, she apologized. I maintain that she didn’t need to apologize on behalf of that other person.
You may remember that the last item under the ignorance category is a nod to a previous post, which you can read right here if you’d like.
As for the questions about my crutches….odds are people are going to ask about them, and they can if they want to. I certainly cannot hide the fact that I need them. While it’s obvious the crutches help me walk, I don’t think it’s immediately obvious how they help me walk. The answer is this: the crutches provide me with stability and more balance.
The second item in this group actually came from my own brother, who admitted to me the other day that he “knew very little” about my “afflictions,” which amused me and annoyed me at the same time, simply because he is my brother and has only been beside me my entire life, so how couldn’t he know? On the other hand, maybe it’s an indication that my brother doesn’t only see my disability and is more preoccupied with the other things that make me who I am: my love for writing, for example. Or the fact that as siblings we usually get on each other’s last nerve. When he asked me “does it hurt when you walk?” I saw it as not only an acknowledgment of what’s always been my reality, but also an admission that he wants to learn more. I don’t usually get asked if it hurts when I walk, so I gave my brother my honest answer: that what hurts is the tightness in my muscles when I try to move, particularly my hamstrings.
I’m asked about navigating stairs quite often, which is also fine. As I’ve mentioned, sometimes others are surprised that I can actually navigate most if not all stairs that have a handrail. If I had to guess I’d say the surprise comes from what I like to call me being in the “in-between” which you can read more about here. I will openly admit that I do need assistance going up and down stairs that do not have a handrail, so perhaps the surprise from others comes from there too.
The last question of this curiosity group is my favorite, mostly because it’s proof that the person asking is not assuming what I can or cannot do in whatever situation. Instead, they are granting me the space to tell them what I need, if anything, that would best assist me. You can read more about that right here.
I just want to point out that these questions are a small fraction of what I’ve had to answer through the years. They are a representation of my own experiences and nobody else’s. I know I chose to present the distinction between being ignorant and being curious through sets of questions, but obviously this discussion can present in the form of statements, too. The first kind of statement that comes to mind for me is one from a long time ago, when I had a friend over to play in grade school. She happened to see me walking around without socks for the first time. She proceeded to say, “Oh; you have normal feet!” I know, I know, we were little, but still. Why wouldn’t I have “normal feet?” And what does having “normal feet” mean, while we’re at it?