When a stranger asks if you had a ceasarean
As a mother living with spinal cord injury, Katherine Reed has endured her share of inappropriate questions. For the most part, she keeps her cool and frames these moments as educational opportunities.
I was talking to a friend recently about parenting with a disability. Shelley and I have both spent many years using wheelchairs in order to lead a full life (in her case for her whole life). We talked about how ingrained ablest attitudes are in our society, so much so that we even contribute to them ourselves.
I met Shelley when we were both playing wheelchair basketball, a lifestyle that led both of us to really underestimate just how difficult it can be for people in Australia living with a disability. We were both young and fit athletes, often traveling in a team.
Now, as mums, less young, less fit, with a whole lot more responsibility and a whole lot less support. We are seeing things from a different point of view.
While Shelley used to be able to handle a couple of small steps with a baby on her lap, those two steps are suddenly a whole lot bigger now. We both find ourselves in situations where we have had to hand our babies to complete strangers (something that is a risk in itself), in order to access parts of our communities.
Yes, women often share their birth stories, but it's usually with people we know, or at the very least, within context.
A third friend, also an old team-mate, recently shared a post on social media about the way able bodied people talk to us about our disabilities.
Now I am someone who has always been quite comfortable talking about my disability. I’ve always taken the attitude that the more people know, the better equipped they are to treat you appropriately.
This post though, addressed the fact that what is actually happening, is a complete stranger is asking you a whole heap of incredibly personal and often invasive questions, with barely a ‘hello’ to preface it.
How would we consider this appropriate behaviour in any other situation? Shelley shared how she was doing groceries one day when a woman stopped to say hello to her baby, before turning and asking her if she had a caesarean or vaginal delivery.
I’ve had many people ask me when I was pregnant if I’d have to have a caesarean delivery. Now yes, women often share our birth stories, but usually with people we know, or at the very least, within context (God knows I probably share mine more than people want me to, lol!).
By answering these questions, I’ve been reinforcing this behaviour. I don’t know how the next person they ask these questions to will feel about it. We accept that sexual assault is a traumatic and personal experience and treat people accordingly. For many people with an acquired injury, their story can be just as traumatic (and it’s nigh on impossible to tell from looking at someone how long they’ve had their disability). For these people, to be asked "what happened to you?" while going about their business can be just very distressing.
And don’t get me started on "what’s wrong with you?". I actually lead a very full and happy life. The only thing "wrong" is society’s perception of my ability.
I find it secretly amusing when someone sees me out alone and offers me some encouraging words, telling me I do a good job getting my chair out of the car or some other mediocre task. I know they mean well, but it just shows how little we expect of people with disabilities. I’m capable of so much more.
I find it amusing because I wonder what those same people will think next time they see me, with my two small children where we live in a small town.
I think my disability makes me a better parent. I am reminded of myself trying to learn to sit up again, to roll over, to grasp for something out of reach, as I watch my babies struggle to do the same.
A better parent
I think my disability makes me a better parent. I know it makes me a more considerate, patient and empathetic person. I know I can take an extra breath (most of the time) when I watch my toddler struggle to get dressed, because I have a very real understanding and memory of how frustrating it is learning to do those things. Learning to dress yourself again as a 19-year-old is a very humbling experience. I am reminded of myself trying to learn to sit up again, to roll over, and to shuffle across the floor reach for something out of my grasp, as I watch my babies struggle to do the same.
I will still answer people's questions, because I still believe that the more we know, the better we can respond, but I feel the need now to also gently remind people to consider if they would ask an able bodied person such intimate details, or how they’d feel if a stranger approached them to ask them such personal questions. Now, I’m off to go fill out a highly invasive, totally irrelevant NDIS questionnaire...