Photo of a stop sign shot from a low angle; image via http://www.flickr.com/photos/thecrazyfilmgirl/3248283617/ under a Creative Commons (CC) license.

Just Making Conversation

An odd thing happens to me–at least once every few months–when I go out in public. It’s been happening since I was a teenager, and my most “visible” disability back then was a pronounced limp on my left side. Strangers seem very eager to try to engage me in conversation about the fact that I have a limp, or (more recently) that I use a cane.

I’ll be going about my day and/or doing things that lots of people do–running errands, going to see friends, going out for lunch–and, like the worst clock ever, on some days the annoying alarm of someone being concerned or just curious goes off:

“You have a limp!”

“What happened to your foot?”

“Does that hurt?”

“Why do you have a cane?”

“What’s the cane for?”

If I’m feeling particularly confident, I usually respond to these curious inquiries with a one-sentence explanation: Yes, I’ve had the limp for many years, so I know I have it. My foot is fine.  It’s a thing I’ve had since birth. No, it doesn’t hurt. I have a cane for balance. It’s so I don’t fall over.

The commenters sometimes try to relate their own stories of disablement–always temporary–to what they think I might be experiencing. On a walk through a popular hiking trail with my partner and in-laws, an older man walked past our group with his wife–then gleefully turned around, walked back towards me and my mother-in-law, and, without regard to the fact that the two of us were in the middle of a conversation that did not include him, began to bombard me with information about a question I had not asked: “So, is that thing [the cane] permanent? I had crutches and then a cane after I had my knee replaced, and I saw you and just had to ask if yours is permanent–”

I cut him off as quickly as I could: “I do not discuss my medical issues with strangers.” I was surprised when he replied “Okay,” and then walked ahead.

Some days, when I’m not feeling so great, or just don’t feel like explaining my lengthy medical history to strangers who just want to make conversation, I may ignore their inquiry or say something like, “I do not discuss my medical issues with strangers” as neutrally as possible, as described above. That’s usually where things get interesting, at least on their end:

“I was just concerned about your foot! You don’t have to be so rude.”

“I’m just curious.”

“I was just trying to make conversation with you, but if you’re gonna be mean, well. . .”

I also cannot help but notice that the people who ask me these questions, or try to “make conversation” about things that are, actually, deeply personal, tend to be white men in their 40s and above. Now, before anyone accuses me of somehow being unfair to white men in that age group, I’ve had questions like this from people who were not white men in their 40s and above, but generally if I see someone who fits that description staring at my cane, then staring at me, then staring back at my cane (it reads like they’re desperately trying to figure something out) I can usually tell what’s coming next. Even when I give off signals of not being interested in talking to anyone–reading a book, looking at something on my phone, or listening to music with my earbuds in– these eager strangers will usually amble on over and try to engage me regarding what my cane is “for,” why I have a limp, or a related query, since they are just so curious about my disability.

There are also numerous criss-crossing bits in these incidents that are related to gender. Most women are socialized to “be nice” and polite in nearly every situation, regardless of whether some of the people–men, particularly in situations where men attempt to chat up random women–that they interact with might not actually have intentions that are completely innocent. This is especially clear in situations of street harassment, as Jennifer Kessler explains in this post on Finally Feminism 101. Lots of men who try to pick up women in public, for reasons including the normalization of rape culture, think that women–random women at the bus stop, on the street, in line at the grocery store, on public transit, to name but a few–somehow owe them cheerful conversation, a smile, a phone number, or a date. And if women don’t comply, some men react in a way that unmasks their true intentions. Spoiler alert: lots of guys who feel entitled to the attention of random women aren’t just “making conversation,” as this post by Captain Awkward illuminates:

50sish white dude with a baseball cap and a Sox jersey: “I like your sunglasses, where did you get them?

I don’t know how to describe this, but everything about the too-casual way he’s asking is fishy and ulterior. He’s working up to asking me for something – whether money or conversation or whatever – and I know I don’t want to talk to him.

But on the off-chance he’s sincere (they are good sunglasses), I say “Eye Spy, on Lincoln.”

He goes on chattering about the sunglasses and what he likes about them, and where exactly is that place, is it the one on such-and-such corner? And then he asks if I’m a student because I look like I just came from class. And you guys? I was done. I was so, so, so very tired. So I just stared at him without talking. I’m not sure I even meant to be mean – I was too tired to even think of anything to say.

And then he repeated himself: “ARE…YOU….COMING…FROM…SCHOOL…you know, because you have a backpack?

I did not respond.

He waved and then SNAPPED his fingers in front of my face. “Hellooooooo!” and I kept staring at him.

And then he got weirded out and backed away from me, muttering about how rude some people are, and went into the next car.

To be clear, I’m not saying that street harassment perpetrated by men towards women and the invasive disability questions that I (and many PWDs) receive from strangers are the same thing. I do think, however, that the inner justifications for the dude who JUST WANTS TO TAAAAAAALK to women about their (perceived) availability to him, and those of the many dudes who have tried to begin conversations with me by asking why I have a limp, what my cane is “for,” and more have at their root something in common: entitlement. These men feel entitled to know about why my (non-normative) body is the way it is, and why. Maybe it stems from the culturally-sanctioned fascination that abled people have with the bodies of disabled people; our bodies are so different, after all, that they just can’t help but stare, gawk, and ask about it–nevermind that doing so is rude and invasive. That the gender dynamics of such a line of questioning–especially men asking disabled women about their bodies and/or assistive devices–follow some familiar patterns (ie: a woman is rude or a bitch if she takes exception to being asked about things that are personal, or being asked for a date, by a random man) does not escape my notice.

If abled people are just curious about disability, its effects, and assistive devices, there are resources that can provide a lot of solid information. Many people with disabilities–especially PWDs who are trying to go about their day and are doing so in public–do not just exist as humanoid versions of Wikipedia, there to answer any questions or smooth over the concerns of “well-meaning” abled people who are just curious about their disability, disabilities, or what assistive technologies or devices they use to get around. If you’re “just trying to make conversation” with me about a highly personal aspect of  my existence, I’d prefer that you keep your thoughts to yourself.