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Don’t ask and don’t assume – no matter what the government says

The incredibly misguided #AskDontAssume campaign is sending the wrong message. The last thing we need is to encourage more people to ask disabled people to volunteer personal information.

Two women chatting on a sofa

Two women chatting on a sofa

Cliff Booth

“What’ve you done to your legs?”

“Why do you use that stick?”

“What’s up with you, then?”

These are pretty intrusive questions, especially when they come, as they usually do, from complete strangers.

Whether it’s someone in the queue at the sandwich shop or a random passer-by in the park, for some reason members of the public have felt entitled to really personal information about me since I became more visibly disabled.

And so when the government launched its incredibly misguided #AskDontAssume campaign yesterday, my heart sank.

People don’t need to be encouraged to ask – they need to be encouraged not to.

I've experimented with different responses over the years. From asking "Seriously?" to creating weird and wonderful explanations about being attacked by lions or surviving a freak circus accident involving acrobatics and fire breathing.

It's awkward to be asked these intrusive questions.

I don’t mind so much when a child asks me about why I walk with crutches. They’re curious and they haven’t learned to assess what’s appropriate to say to a stranger. But for adults, asking about it is inappropriate and pushy.

A Black non-binary person with a short mohawk and tattoos sits holding a black cane.

A Black non-binary person with a short mohawk and tattoos sits holding a black cane.

Disabled And Here

The reason somebody is disabled could be anything at all and asking that question could lead to somebody feeling compelled to explain that they are disabled due to their ex-partner’s violence, or that they were in a highly traumatic accident.

Even if the reason for somebody being disabled isn’t traumatic, we should never expect anybody, especially a stranger, to give us information about their health. If you wouldn’t go up to a stranger in the GP waiting room and ask, “What are you here about, then?” – because you know the answer may be sensitive and the information should be private – then don’t ask a disabled person either.

For some of us, it’s also that the answer is not straight forward. Some people have a simple, commonly understood diagnosis and don’t mind sharing it. That’s all good. I have a complex mixture of conditions, some of which entail a queue of doctors trailing in to peer at me because they might not have seen it before in their career. So it’s not unreasonable to expect that the guy at the next table in the café won’t have heard of it.

Please don't offer us your wisdom, either. If the specialist at the Hallamshire isn’t quite sure what to do with you, it’s unlikely that a stranger will have the solution. Disabled people have funny-not-funny bingo cards for the most common suggestions (“I’m fine with gluten. Yoga wouldn’t fix this. No, walking with crutches isn’t ‘giving up’”).

So while the government is quite right to tell us not to make assumptions when we see a disabled person, encouraging people to ask us about our conditions perpetuates the idea that disabled people’s lives are public property. We are already regularly grabbed and pushed, and hate crimes are high.

The government wants to pretend it cares about the way disabled people are treated to distract from its failure to engage with the UN saying it systemically discriminates against us, from the slashing of benefits that help us to stay alive, and from doing nothing to defend railway station ticket offices, the closures of which the train companies themselves admit will hit disabled people hard.

So despite governmental advice, don’t ask. Even if you think somebody isn’t entitled to their Blue Badge or to the accessible toilet. Even if you’re really, really curious. Even if you’ve started taking vitamin B12 and now you feel great, so you think it’s The Answer for the woman you pass in the station every morning.

I’m as entitled to privacy about my medical history as you are to yours. And whatever the government social media campaign of the week is, the Tories are not on my side.

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