Embrace the fear of sounding like an idiot

When you ask dumb questions about my disability – if my wheelchair has snow tires, if you can take a ride – you just look ignorant.

wheelchair 311 (photo credit: MCT)
wheelchair 311
(photo credit: MCT)
On the afternoon of the last day of Pessah, I was sitting with friends in the sun, relaxing after eating my second lunch and working on a religious farmer’s tan, when I asked what the time was. The typical response to this question, I’m quite sure, is a recitation of the time or a simple “I don’t know.” But, of course, the answer I received was, “What? You don’t have a clock built into that thing?”
Um, last time I checked, my wheelchair was not a time machine.
Everyone has his own defects, disabilities and/or imperfections, which, naturally, materializes in a person’s insecurities. For some, it is their weight. For others, it is an unusual facial feature. For me, it is the inability to walk.
As the afternoon progressed, the questions persisted, including the common questions of whether I have turbo speed or snow tires, and it made me wonder why is it acceptable for people to interrogate me, but it would never be appropriate to ask someone else about their imperfections?
Imagine asking someone with a gigantic rear end at a meal: “Have you ever considered using your behind as a shelf, that way you can bring more items to the table at a time?” or “Do you ever notice that your backside makes you sit higher than the average person?”
Or what if someone asked one of your guests with an abnormally large nose whether he has a heightened sense of smell? Or what if they asked a woman with a fat tummy if she is mistaken for being pregnant?
THESE ARE just a few of the questions I am inclined to ask in response to the unnerving queries I receive.
Alas, the southerner in me bubbles up, and I politely respond with, “No. Oddly enough, the chair did not come equipped with a fuel-powered jet engine,” while I think or mutter under my breath some appropriate insult. (As a side note, southern hospitality is simply the act of feigning interest, caring or niceties. The phrase “ya’ll come back now, ya hear?” can often mean: “What weirdos. Please don’t ever come back.”)
As I bite my tongue, maintain my composure and remain civil, I regrettably think to myself: “I really thought these questions would end once I made aliya.”
So, that afternoon, after what seemed like the millionth question, I responded with: “Why is it that people feel the need to ask me these questions?”
The one who found it shocking that my chair did not have a built-in time-keeping mechanism responded: “Wouldn’t you prefer for people to ask than to be afraid?”
The word “afraid” caught my attention. Are they afraid of me, or are they afraid that I may not have snow tires, a built-in clock, turbo speed, turn signals, head lights, an eject button or a stereo system, or are they afraid to simply ask ridiculous questions? If they are afraid to ask the questions, then, I say, they should be! The fear of embarrassing someone or sounding like an idiot is a well-founded fear, and one should embrace it. If they are afraid that my chair doesn’t come with options that could be featured in an episode of The Jetsons, I’m okay with that.
However, I think what she meant to say was that such inquisitive people are “afraid” of me. They aren’t afraid because I might beat them in a street fight, because I can’t kick. And they aren’t afraid of me because I am mean, hostile or intimidating (or at least I hope not). Rather, they are afraid of their own ignorance about people with disabilities and are, thus, uncomfortable. Unfortunately for me, their discomfort is manifested by jokes and questions to break the ice and make conversation, which only draws attention to my disability – my insecurity.
While it is admirable to be afraid of ignorance rather than to accept it, the fear of ignorance can only be remedied by education. Get to know someone with a disability. Learn more than the maximum speed of their chair. Learn that they are independent, intelligent, funny or just plain superficial and obnoxious, that we, too, are just humans with imperfections – only ours are visible to the world.
IN THE meantime, in the spirit of education and in hopes of answering all your ridiculous questions, here are the answers:
• It goes four miles per hour. Or, as my mom once answered, “Not fast enough to get away from people like you who ask that question.”
• No, it does not have snow tires, chains or any kind of snowmobile-type functions. I live in the Middle East, not Antarctica.
• No, it does not have an eject button. However, I often wish it had one of those pop-up boxing gloves to punch people like you in the face.
• No, you may not take a ride. I am not public transportation, and frankly, you will crush me.
• No, there is not an option for seat warmers, because it would, too quickly, drain the battery.
• No, I do not want to “soop” it up with rims, a subwoofer, hydraulics or any kind of bling.
• No, it does not have turn signals, headlights or anything resembling a car. It’s a wheelchair, not an Escalade.
• No, it does not climb stairs. It is not a tank.
• Yes, I can have children (which answers the related, commonly asked question – Can you have sex?).
• No, I do not have a caretaker. So, stop looking around for the Filipino or Indian. This isn’t a game of “Where’s Waldo.”
• No, I cannot walk at all. Turns out I am not just lazy.
• No, I don’t feel lucky that I don’t have to walk everywhere, that I was exempt from physical education class or that I don’t have to go to the gym. You should feel pretty stupid for asking that though.
• “The blind leading the blind” is a saying for a reason. Stop trying to set me up with men with disabilities. It doesn’t work.
• No, I don’t go off-roading. I am not a 12-year-old boy.
• No, I’m not dying. I’m just pale! (My mom made me start wearing blush at the age of 11 in hopes of avoiding that question.)
• No, I am not also mentally retarded. (The public school system mademe submit to an IQ test every year due to my physical disability. Thebest was when they pulled me out of my calculus class to ask me simpleaddition questions.)
• My name is Ariella, not “the chair.”
• No, I’m not going to run you over. Unless you’re one of thoseannoying small dogs or it’s an act of self-defense, typically takenupon my little sister.
The writer made aliya in 2008 and is a Jerusalem-based attorney.