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"So What's Wrong with You?"

How people with disabilities battle forced intimacy.

Key points

  • People with disabilities are often asked personal and invasive questions about their health. This is a form of ableism.
  • Forced intmacy is the experience of people with disabilities being expected to share personal information about themselves.
  • People with hidden disabilities are often expected to "prove" their disabilities, which can be humiliating and violating.
Source: H_Ko/Shutterstock

"What's wrong with you?" and "How did you become disabled?" are questions that a friend of mine hears almost daily. As a person in a wheelchair, strangers frequently ask him personal questions about his health and his body. Some people even attempt to "guess" his condition, or make assumptions about how his condition was acquired. This is a form of ableist language, i.e., language that is offensive or harmful to people with disability.

Ableist language takes not only the form of insults and the use of outdated terms but also negative stereotypes and attitudes. These can manifest as the impolite, disrespectful, and demeaning questions that strangers ask of people with disabilities. It can reflect a sense of entitlement to demand to know how a person became disabled by asking invasive questions such as “What happened to you?” “What’s wrong with you?” or “Were you born that way?” It is also offensive to make assumptions about how someone’s disabilities were acquired. In one exchange, my friend reported that a stranger approached him and said, “Thank you for your service,” making the incorrect assumption that he had been injured while serving in the military.

Forced Intimacy

Other offensive interactions include asking highly personal questions of strangers with disabilities, such as, “What’s it like to be disabled?” or “Can you still have sex?” There is a tendency for people to believe they are entitled to ask intrusive questions about the bodies of people with disabilities and to expect them to reveal personal information about themselves for the benefit, education, or curiosity of others. This phenomenon has been called “forced intimacy," which can be defined as the “common, daily experience of disabled people being expected to share personal parts of ourselves to survive in an ableist world.” In this way, people with disabilities are often made to feel as though their bodies are public property.

Remarks such as, “But you look so normal” or questions like, "Are you actually disabled?" can also be offensive to people with disabilities. Society has preconceived ideas about how disabled people are supposed to look or act. However, not all disabilities are readily apparent to others. Many people have hidden or non-visible disabilities, including epilepsy, rheumatoid arthritis, brain injuries, or learning difficulties like dyslexia. The lack of a visual cue, such as a wheelchair or a cane, can raise suspicions when people with hidden disabilities seek accommodations. As a result, some people are expected to prove their disabilities. Some might even be accused of "faking" their disabilities.

In September 2017, war veteran Andy Grant was boarding a London train but when he was asked to produce his disability card, he discovered that he had lost his wallet. An employee asked, “How do we know you are even disabled?” “Because I got blown up in Afghanistan,” Grant replied, as he lifted up his trouser leg, revealing a prosthetic limb. His right leg had been amputated following an explosion. This kind of forced intimacy obliges people with disabilities to share personal information to gain accommodations and have their access needs met, and this can feel humiliating, exploitative, and violating.

How Can We Avoid Forced Intimacy?

To be good disability allies and avoid forced intimacy, we can keep invasive questions to ourselves. We should also avoid discussing a person's disability without the consent of the individual. We must believe people when they disclose a disability, and not accuse them of "faking" their disability. We should also listen to people when they request an accommodation, but not assume we know what they need.

Many people don't mean to be offensive, and they often have good intentions, but even well-meant comments can take a serious toll on people with disabilities.

Learn more from On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.

LinkedIn and Facebook image: H_Ko/Shutterstock