Why it can be harmful to ask disabled people 'what happened to you?'

Jennie Berry

Sep 30, 2022

What happened to you?

As a disabled person, I’m often met with strangers both in person and online who ask ‘what happened’ to me. The list of questions spans from, "Were you born like this or did you have an accident?" to "Why do you use a wheelchair?" to "What’s wrong with you?".
All of which can be super hurtful and leave me feeling like somewhat of a museum exhibit.

As a wheelchair user, it’s hard sometimes when you are put on the spot and asked these questions when you are out and about trying to just get on with your day. Whilst we can’t categorise and assume that every disabled person is uncomfortable with these sort of questions, it’s important to understand, that for some - it’s a tough question to have to relive and explain.Some days I am happy to explain, should the question be asked in natural conversation, or where it is relevant. Other days, I simply just become tired of constantly having to go over the same pressing question, especially when it is the only question asked.

Jenny in a hospital bed holding a stuffed bear.

A lot of the time, people will ask me these sort of questions before an introduction of saying hello or even asking my name. I tend to find that for the most part, people are just curious, but it’s that curiosity that often leaves me feeling uncomfortable. For me, I want to be seen as a person. I want to be recognised as an individual and not a medical mystery to the general public. Whilst I’m proud to be disabled, it’s tough at times to know that this is the first thing that people recognise and want to know more about. On the other side of the coin, some people often tell me that they ‘didn’t even see my chair’, which again, is another conversation in itself.

Why "what’s wrong with you?" can be a harmful question to ask…

For many disabled people who have acquired their disability later in life, there are hundreds upon thousands of answers to this question. For some, it may be something that triggers them to relive a traumatic accident, for others it may be a case of having to revisit a tough period in their life where their health slowly deteriorated. Whatever it is, it’s personal to the individual and is a lot to unpack to a stranger in the street. For me, having had an accident in 2017, I went through an intense and somewhat traumatic 5 month stay in hospital, that I’d rather not have to be reminded about every day. This is not to say that I haven’t come to terms with my disability, just that that period in my life was very dark and I had to unpack a lot of internalised ableism throughout this period. I found the early stages of my disability and ‘coming to terms with it’ for one of a better term, to be very tough to navigate.

Comments from others regarding the "what happened to you?" question.

Over on Instagram, we asked followers how they feel when they’re faced with this problem - here’s what they said:

From disabled people:

  • "It’s rude - I was in a car crash and it does bring back horrible memories."

  • "I feel very uncomfortable and I find it quite confrontational to have this conversation, which then leads to anxiety, not a great combo!"

  • "For me, it’s a bit annoying because nothing happened - it’s genetic!"

  • "It makes me feel embarrassed, like i’m just a curiosity rather than a person."

  • "They see my disability first not me, which is sad."

  • "It makes me feel really small and invalid. I’m trying to be me, and they act like I’m different."

  • "It makes me feel gross, bothered and belittled. It’s hard to explain, but it’s always a shock then I get upset later on."

  • "It makes me feel like I’m the elephant in the room that won’t be treated normally until the nature of my disability is addressed. I’m not to be treated the same as everyone else until this is discussed."

  • "I hate this question. Mine was really traumatic. The driver died and I was left paralysed. I hate my story."

  • "It makes me feel self-conscious and bothered I guess. Also, I’m just waiting for them to be mean or judgmental."

  • "You tell them when asked and they turn into a doctor giving unsolicited and unwanted advice."

From non-disabled people:
"My brother is now non verbal/brain damaged after and accident and people constantly ask me (as he cant communicate now) or even ask me in front of him ‘what happened to him?’ etc. I can’t even imagine how it must feel for him to hear them ask that question, as its such an awful thing to be asked. We even get this from Nurses! They disregard his feelings even though he is sat next to me. It also hurts my feelings to as his sister to hear it."

"I’m not disabled myself, but it's assumed that something happened, but not every disability comes from an event or similar. It must make it harder for those with genetic/degenerative conditions."

Is it ever okay to ask this question?

Jenny in a hospital wheelchair getting ready to have an MRI

From the answers above, you can probably see it’s a very tricky line which can cause a lot of discomfort for both disabled people and their peers. This can bring up so many traumatic memories, or even make someone feel uncomfortable because nothing did happen - they’re just disabled.

So, before asking this, ask yourself first, why do I need to know this? If it’s curiosity - maybe keep it to yourself…
Of course, there is no right or wrong answer to whether you should or shouldn’t ask this question, but the main point to note is that there isn’t a great deal of education to be taken from asking such a question.Perhaps opt to ask disabled people how you can assist in making the world a more accessible place? Is there anything you can be doing personally at home, at work or in your local community, to support the disabled community?

We would love to hear your thoughts on this one - so feel free to get in touch on Instagram/Facebook/Twitter or LinkedIn

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A large group of Sociability community members at the Naidex Sociability Social
A large group of Sociability community members at the Naidex Sociability Social
A large group of Sociability community members at the Naidex Sociability Social
Jennie and a group of Sociability community members taking a break in a cafe
Jennie and a group of Sociability community members taking a break in a cafe
Jennie and a group of Sociability community members taking a break in a cafe
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A Sociability postcard with a QR code to download the app

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