No Explanation Necessary

Several weeks ago I was waiting for the elevator at a train station and an elderly woman approached, and waited for that familiar *ding!* beside me. She seemed a bit unsteady on her feet and was carrying heavy bags loaded with odds and ends. My city-dweller-radar told me that she might be feeling unwell, or otherwise not necessarily be of a sound mind. She gave me a once over and then mumbled, while looking down at my legs "what happened?" Just as I was about to respond the elevator doors opened and I entered, pressing the Door Open button while she shuffled inside with me. She asked me again, still, looking down at my feet "what happened?
Uncertain of how much she would be able to comprehend, but also certain that the doors would open again in ten seconds - I said, "I was just born this way" with a shrug. Because in ten seconds I made an educated gamble that I probably would never see her again. Even after I told her my answer she repeated her question, in the same muffled and confused manner "what happened?" I took a deep breath in, the kind you do when you try to find some crumb of exasperated patience somewhere in your Friday afternoon at 4:30PM, and I said "I just have trouble walking." All the while silently pleading to the Elevator Gods that the doors would open. They did, but not before she asked me once more: "what happened?"
I sped out before the doors even opened their full width and felt a rush of freedom. It wasn't the freedom from the awkward encounter, it wasn't the freedom from being in a smelly train station elevator, it wasn't even the freedom from her confusing demeanor - it was the freedom from having to explain to someone "what happened."

The point of this snippet is that I realized no one really explained to me here's how you decline talking about your disability, or medical condition. 

In school and at home we are taught "how to say 'no'" to strangers, to unwanted approaches, to shady characters, to negative peer pressure, to unrequested solicitations etc. But, at least for me, I was never taught how to say "no" to the question "why are you disabled?" There are a couple obvious answers to this: First of all, as children we are often surrounded by adults who explain in some way to others why we are disabled. I would think that in this way the process of explaining appears natural to many of us. Also because adults in our lives did it, there is probably this (however childish) idea that 'it is the right thing to do.' Secondly, there might be some component of protection and security for explaining. In my experience explaining that my bones are fragile is not just a way to educate others, but it's a survival technique that I have used countless times to protect myself! To prevent harm from coming to me, to avoid pain! This is not a terribly revolutionary idea to wrap our minds around, right? Lastly, and I think this is only true in some instances -- 'justifying' our existence somehow makes us seem "right" as opposed to wrong. Whether the explanation is made out of a sense to answer someone's question, or to clarify confusion we are 'right' simply in the act of closing that gap due to their misunderstanding.

Despite all of these practical reasons for our reasons that we give, the option to "say no" always exists - and it should always exist. I'm not positive that young kids with disabilities are necessarily taught this, but in my opinion I think it's important that all of their options are made clear to them. No child should ever feel pressured into explaining their disability to anyone, but I can't tell you how many times I have felt that way because no one told me I had any other choice. In the same sense that we are taught what appropriate and inappropriate acts of physical contact looks and feels like, we should also learn to recognize that uncertainty in our gut when someone asks "what happened?"
For me it's the onslaught of questions that come to mind: who are you? Why do you want to know? Why do you need to know? What are you going to do with me? If these answers are not immediately clear to me, then I begin to proceed cautiously with the words that are about to come out of my mouth. It is also this sensation of fear edged with creepiness that lets me know, this is probably not someone who needs to know the answer because they may not use the information in your best interests. 

Look, all I am saying is that we have options and the most freely available among those options to us is the way we communicate to one another who we are. Let's not leave any of those behind because the consequence may be that sometimes even the right words can feel so wrong.

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5 Responses to No Explanation Necessary

  1. Such a great post, Sandy! There is a fine line between "educating" people and "humoring" them; but no one ever requires an explanation about YOU and the things that you go through in your life - just as you would never require an explanation from a complete stranger about what makes them who they are. Thanks for having the courage and grace to articulate these experiences that most of us can't find the words to discuss. -Ali

    1. Thanks for the comment Ali!! Hope you have a great end of the week :)

  2. oh my goodness THANK YOU SO MUCH. This is an amazing insight of yours. thank you for sharing.

  3. I love this! But what's the answer? How do you decline, politely? I'm very bad at this. I'm always too polite, even if I correct their manner, I still explain. I don't think I should always have to and I want to be better at it for my child, so that I can model that for her. I'm already bored with it, having been polite and answering for the last 5 years. She has the rest of her life! It's going to get old really quickly for her, no matter how much of a shine I try to put on it. Sara M.

    1. Finally! Someone asked the right follow-up question to this post :-) This lets me know that I should write the follow-up post to this entry... It'll be coming soon, probably next week!


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