Questions About Your Spinal Cord Injury

Do You Mind When People Ask?

Being in a wheelchair, you just can’t get away from the inevitable question – “What happened to you?” Out to eat, at school, even in the parking lot, no matter where you are, there will always be someone who will want to know ‘why’ (oh you pesky human curiosity gene). It won’t happen every time you’re out, but it sure happens a lot.

How do you feel when it happens? For me, it’s all about context and where I’m at specifically. About 4 months ago, at my doctor’s office in a huge downtown hospital, the secretary (while I was checking in) decided to drop the big “What happened to you?” question when I got to the front of the line (and embarrassingly loud). She said, “Hello, what’s your name?” and then (after glancing at my legs), without skipping a beat she asked, “What happened to you??” Unexpected interrogation. Nice.

Suffice it to say, the secretary did NOT get an answer, but she did get something from me: A nice tongue lashing. In my mind, there really should be places where you are free from rude questions regarding your disability, and the doctor’s office (along with the hospital) should be included in this list, but with employees everywhere dropping in quality, these questions may happen a lot more in the future.

I ended up asking the secretary (as a rebuttal), “What do you mean there’s something wrong with me?” and then I very succinctly informed her how inappropriate it was she asked. In this moment, you have to make a choice: 1) Let yourself be treated disrespectedly or 2) Risk seeming like a jerk. The younger version of myself would have never had the courage to say what I said to her (I likely would’ve just given her the short-version of my injury, and left it at that).

But now – being older, wiser and more confident – the fear of “What will they say?” or “How will I be perceived?” no longer has a swaying power over me. To sum it up simply: I don’t care anymore if they think I’m a you know what. I no longer have patience for prying questions. If you don’t know me, you have no business asking. Everyone loves a dramatic sob story. I just refuse to entertain people with mine any longer.

But if you do know me – new PCAs, friends, co-workers – and don’t know my diving story yet, I never mind when these folks ask. But even though, they still need to ask in a respectful way. Asking the question, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but how did your injury happen?” is a great way to ask (and will get you a response). I so wish more people just knew the right way to ask.

I’m not completely unreasonable. I know some people just want to know the basic story, and don’t need the gory details, and those folks are great. But to question us suddenly, especially when we’re complete strangers, it just blows my mind what people think is appropriate.

How do you feel when people ask why you’re in a wheelchair? Will you only answer folks you know personally?

20 replies
  1. Bob Vogel
    Bob Vogel says:

    Hi Tiff,

    GREAT BLOG! A while back a wheeler did a great job in summing up why the question is so inapropriate–, as you explain, it insinuates there is something *wrong* with you AND it is basically saying “You don’t know me, please tell about the most personal, gut wrenching thing that ever happened to you.”

  2. stephen
    stephen says:

    i would rather people ask rather than wonder and come up with their own ideas. i don’t think it’s rude – tho as you say, it depends on context and voice tone. if you want to know, just ask. i’m not embarrassed by it. yeah, there is something”wrong” with me – otherwise i’d be standing. i can always just say “nothing, what’s wrong with you?”, or, my favorite answer, “pirates. don’t ask.” i don’t own a high horse.

  3. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Here’s one for you – every time I tell someone that my Wife and I have twins, they inevitably look at me for a second and then my wheelchair and ask “fertility treatments or the old fashioned way?” I never know what to say. I always WANT to say…kind of a personal question, don’t you think? What’s next, you want to know which position we used? But alas, I never do.

  4. Kim Romes
    Kim Romes says:

    This is an issue I’ve had to deal with for over 30 years. For me it all depends on who is asking and what mood I’m in at the moment. Kids can ask me any question at any time. I would rather they get correct information rather than wondering. Old people can pretty much ask me any question at any time. Both of those groups have none or very little filters. Adults, on the other hand, can be so rude. My response usually starts with “the look.” Then, depending on the situation, I turn the question around by saying, “There’s nothing wrong with me. What’s wrong with you?” Thank goodness most people keep their tounge’s in their mouth and just stare. Now there’s another topic!

  5. Tara
    Tara says:

    It all depends on what‘s going on at the time, and if it’s an adult or a child. I always answer children in various ways depending on their age, but if it’s an adult, and I am out on a date; I find it very rude to come and lean over the table to ask what happened or act like it’s a miracle I’m out in public at all. I get older people coming up to me hugging me for no apparent reason and children wanting to “help.” I don’t mind that so much. It depends on my mood. I’ve been disabled a long time, and I’m with Tiffiny my patience has gotten pretty thin as I have gotten older.

  6. Jennie
    Jennie says:

    I love when they ask and situations like the doctors office and expect you to be able to give an answer in under a minute…… It’s like, ummmmm Nothing what happened to you? One time recently a child was staring and getting in my way (it’s like if you’re going to stare fine I’m use to it and you’re a kid but at least get the freak OUT of my way) and she says moooom what happened to her. This happened about a foot from me btw. The women says I don’t know I guess she’s tired. That made me SO mad. I’m like oh yea, I’m just lazy. I’m just so lazy I don’t feel like walking. WTH women. I’m was injured which is why I’m obviously in this chair. I was like NO I got hurt a long time ago and now I have to use a wheel chair. The women looked at me like I offended her…..

  7. Carol
    Carol says:

    I think it is almost as rude to not answer, if only a short one. I would rather tell than have everyone in the room continue staring at me like a freak and maybe I can get someone thinking about the issue of punishments fitting the crime.

  8. Harry
    Harry says:

    Most of those asking usually say, “Is the reason you are in a wheel chair due to your weight. OK. I am overweight. My lack of the ability to move has not helped that. BUT I moved around and walked, I used to climb, I used to do all sorts of things when I was nearly 80 pounds heavier than I currently am. The difference is several accidents. Two back surgeries that have ended my ability to walk any distance and pain when I try to do anything standing the point of passing from pain. Most will not want to hear that story as it does not fit with their view of why a person is in a wheel chair. I am still not sure what that would be…I just do what I can and go from there. If this means that something does not get done that day then it is alright with me. I will try to finish it the next. If I cannot and my wife cannot then that ‘project’ is put into one where I ask others. If no one is willing then that project remains undone. What other option do I have? I refuse to stay in the chair and do nothing. That is not productive, but I cannot do what I used to and I understand my limits. Example is trying to change a light bulb…hard to do from a wheelchair. But it needs to get done. So how do you change it? I have rigged a light bulb changing tool that helps to grab onto a bulb and then twist it until I can remove it. It is not pretty. I know that there is most likely something out there like mine. But the difference is I can do mine from the seat of my chair. I am trying to modify it now to do the new florescent bulbs. I have been asked so many times about my injury that it has become a set speech. The surgery, the infections, the treatment, the PT, the loss of my mobility, the way things are now. I really get tired of it! I have threatened to tape it and play it back for those who have to know. I agree there is a way to ask and that secretary in the doctors office was in violation of HIPPA laws in asking in front of the waiting room too. You had the right to tell her to buzz off and I am glad that you have the courage to do so. Take care and the best of luck in the future.

  9. Rochelle
    Rochelle says:

    I dont think it’s rude at all. They simply just wan’t to know why you’re in a wheelchair, yeah you might not want to answer but……how is that ude in any way shape or form?
    I don’t see it, you’re just pushing it cause you know that people will feel bad that you’re in a wheelchair.
    Well if you gave me that answer i would say” Well if you want me to be more precise WHY ARE YOU INA WHEELCHAIR”
    That’s what i would have said and if you’ve got a problem …….don’t care.
    It might sound like i’m rude and have no emotions but i’m speaking the truth, all that poor secutary wanted to know is how you got into a wheelchair, and fair enoug you didn’t want to say, because it brougth back BAD memories or something, but did you need to answer her in such a rude manner?
    You’re just lucky i wasn’t there i would’ve given you an earful on what you said to that woman.
    BTW i’m 13 years old!

  10. Carol
    Carol says:

    Good answer Rochelle, very good answer indeed!! You and your parents should be very proud of your mature sense of politeness and reality!

  11. Rollx Vans
    Rollx Vans says:

    There is a fine line between being nosey and genuinely wanting to know how something happened. I think that big issue we need to focus on is how it was asked. I don’t it is wrong for someone to ask “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but how did you get injured?”, but i would say it is rude an insensitive to ask “What happened to you?”.

    I think it is a great for people to ask. But it just needs to be done in a respectful way.

  12. Giselle
    Giselle says:

    I have been dealing with that question for 23 years now. Everytime I get asked, my heart tightens up because why can’t they see beyond my wheelchair and just see me as a person. If you don’t know me, you have no right to ask me such a personal question. How about, “Hi, how are you?” Lately I’ve just said nothing at all. I’m at a point in my life where only friends and co-workers get that inside information because it is rude and makes me feel like less of a person.

  13. Justlazy
    Justlazy says:

    The best way hands down to deal with this is just to say simply in a compact nutshell: I had a spinal cord injury. If they go further and ask “how did it happen” – I’ll say: it was an accident. And I won’t go any further. In the last three years since 2010 since the SCI I’ve gone through the gamut of responses from getting angry, to saying something ridiculous, from telling them the long drawn out story — and I can say saying simply that you have an injury to your spinal cord is the best and most simple response and they seem to not probe with anymore questions after that lol.

    People are just severely curious, I don’t think they mean that much harm arre know they’re being ruude while in the moment they just want to know what happened to you.

  14. vicki
    vicki says:

    I’m the wife of a T5 para. I sometimes find my self looking a people in wheelchairs not to stare at them but checking out their wheelchair to see if it would work better than the one he has. Sometimes I think they think I’m crazy. Most time’s I apologize and explain if I feel like I’ve made them uncomfortable.

  15. Lori Colwill
    Lori Colwill says:

    I also get “I hope you get better.” I have an autoimmune illness so mine wasn’t from an accident, but still get asked that question, and yes it is how and where it is asked. Love the idea of just saying how it is as you are feeling at the moment.

  16. Varenikje
    Varenikje says:

    I work in a nursing home and that was an incredible HIPPA violation! I think I’d get fired if I tried something like that. I like the “it was an accidental spinal chord injury” response.

  17. varenikje
    varenikje says:

    Well, I’ll just say again that the receptionist’s response was a HIPPA violation and that is fairly serious. And I think this response: “The best way hands down to deal with this is just to say simply in a compact nutshell: I had a spinal cord injury. If they go further and ask “how did it happen” – I’ll say: it was an accident. And I won’t go any further.” answers the question sufficiently. Hard to bet on feeling up to giving that response every time, however.

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