Saturday, January 30, 2016

Conversations with strangers: When it's more than just saying hi

      I got a lot of interesting feedback a little while ago when I shared a story about something that happened to me. I guess you could say it wasn't particularly unusual, as people exchange pleasantries and have conversations in public all the time. A man was sitting beside me at the bus stop on my way to one of my weekly volunteer positions, and he said hi. I know, SHOCKING, right? But what happened next perhaps was more unexpected.
      He saw all the travel stickers I collect on my wheelchair of different places I've been. He saw one from Abbey Road and asked me if I had indeed been there. I told him I had, and I told him we had local professors in some of the places to guide us around and show us more of the local experiences rather than just tourist attractions.  I told him how much  I love the Beatles, and even though I  wasn't that annoying tourist who  stopped and took a picture at the road, but I enjoyed the experience nevertheless. I told him how horrible the traffic was coming out this way, but today wasn't too bad. He asked me what I do now, and instead of it being like that,  I just mentioned that I'm blogging while looking for full-time work, and I hope to produce some more videos soon. When my response to “do you post every day?” was a chuckle and an enthusiastic “I wish,” he found me here online.  I don't know if he is reading this today, but, to the guy on the D line, hi, and thank you.
      I realize it's kind of ironic that I'm thanking a stranger for having an everyday interaction with me, when the whole point of my blog and some major campaigns in the mainstream news media is to promote inclusion of people with disabilities. And while the message is there, I realize that sometimes it can have an adverse or unwanted effect. So that got me thinking, we should talk about how we do (or don't) talk about disability.
      I have been of the thought personally for a long time that it is okay for curious people to ask questions. I usually don't mind answering them. That said, there should probably be some thought put into how you ask or what you say to a person. Yes, my condition is probably going to come up in conversation, and that's great! But, does the first thing you say when you see me really have to be “What's wrong with you?” ?  I don't think so. A simple “Hi, how are you?” or a comment about the Seahawks getting pummeled 2 weeks ago will do just fine.
     The thing about this that I don't understand is that  awareness campaigns, like this one or this one, while they share my overall message,  seem to make people even more uncomfortable than they usually are about talking to me. They acknowledged me!!  Now what do they do????  It usually starts with “Oh, my grandma had a wheelchair,” or “My sister has XYZ..." or my personal favorite “I really don't want to offend you, but......"  I'm not offended by your curiosity, and if I am you will know about it.  Does that mean I want people to  stop asking questions at all? Absolutely not!  Do I exist to be the Wikipedia page for my disability? No!  Will I answer your question? Yes,  most likely! Is it sometimes nice to have a random interaction with a stranger free of being praised for existing and crappy wheelchair jokes that I've heard 1000 times? You bet!
     And that is why I thank the guy on the bus the other week. Go ahead, ask about disability.... it's not a curse word  (trust me, I know lots of those, too!), but there are also so many other things you can ask about also. Travel, music, movies, books, sports, your destination, the latest meme on the internet, ANYTHING, really.  Disability can be part of the conversation, sure, but there is much more when you are trying to get to know someone, even briefly.
     Bottom line: I know that  none of us interact with every single person we see anyway. If you are going to interact with me, please let it be because you would have done so anyway, not just because you thought it would make me or you feel good because I'm disabled, or because someone told you to  talk to me for no reason. If you're a nice person, that's great, and I appreciate it, and if you don't want to talk to me, that's fine too.
     But, if you do, just put some thought into how we interact and it will make the experience more enjoyable for everybody.

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