Why is it offensive to ask the reason a person uses a wheelchair?

Here’s the first Q&A for IANMC’s AMA (whew…that’s a mouthful):


Question from Nicki on Facebook:

I have dealt with some level of disability since 12…and asked A LOT…why the crutches, why the cane, why the wheelchair, what happened, etc. and never have I been offended. Why is that offensive?

My Two Cents:

Nicki, thanks for the question and for sharing your experience. Or did you? I didn’t post your entire question, but I didn’t see you volunteering the reason for your use of mobility aids. And that’s ok.

For me, most often, I take offense in how I am asked. However, I still think that any person with any medical situation has a right to privacy. It just so happens that my medical challenge is clearly visible. I’m a very open person when I am ready. I have volunteered the details of my injury with colleagues, moms that I’ve met on the playground, and ALL of my fellow blog readers. But that doesn’t mean that I want to dwell on a very difficult diagnosis. Parts of my experience have been painful, both physically and emotionally. So when I do share my journey, it’s more of a testimony than to satisfy a person’s curiosity. Remember, I AM NOT MY CHAIR. I am blessed and there’s so much more to me than my ride. I hope that answers your question, Nicki. Take care.

If you have a question for me, email me at justice [at] iamnotmychair [dot] com or get me on Facebook/Twitter. See ya soon.



  • Nicki Nixon

    First, thanks for the reply. I wasn’t unwilling to share just didn’t know you wanted that level of detail. But the short story is I had a rare cancer at 12, multiple surgeries and way too much radiation left me with degenerative nerve damage and stenosis of the spinal chord. During rehab the first go round I was in a wheelchair for the better part of a year. Another tumor, another surgery and this time as the doctors told me, my legs started moving on the table. I was very optimistic but I always knew that at 40-50 would start being tough, but didn’t expect earlier. Not bad for the first 10 years or so – school, college, moving to the opposite coast, etc. and just moving along with minor limitations. But then by my late 20s another tumor and this time things didn’t rebound. Pretty significant ongoing pain, spasticity in my back and legs, personal control issues, etc. were all part of the result even after the tumor was removed and supposedly all would be ok. But then slowly enough loss of control, strength, etc. has left me in my wheelchair completely. While I can stand pivot turn, etc. while using my arms to pull, support and balance me, walking with my crutches or even moving around the house without my chair is no longer an option. I have been continually planning for the transition – going to hand controls sooner rather than later, getting my new chair before it was 100% of the time necessary, etc. I have had the good fortune of knowing what was eventually going tohappen to me. Perhaps that is why I find this question so curious.

    The short version that most folks get when I am asked is “result of too much radiation for cancer when I was a kid”. I can probably count on 1 hand the number of times there is a follow-up question by a relative stranger. Kids are a different story… my response for the younger ones my daughter’s age and younger is “my legs just don’t work well and that’s why I need my sticks (or now, my chair)”. I do vaguely recall instances where folks had partied a little too much being stupid, but that had nothing to do with my crutches or chair. They were being equally stupid with questions, comments, etc. to others. I honestly
    can’t recall off the top of my head any offensively posed questions, in tone, attitude, etc.

    Having dealt with this for the better part of my life on some level, I can honestly say for me the direct approach is so much more appealing than being stared at or talked about across the room. Ask me! Enlighten yourself! Learn what I already know – the chair or other device has NOTHING to do with my intellect and ability to be equal in this world short of the physical part. My daughter (now 10) has never known me not to need assistance so she is very quick to respond to her friends or anyone almost before I can. She doesn’t think twice about it when we meet a friend who perhaps has a lower level of physical ability than I do. She doesn’t ask – she doesn’t NEED to. She has lived this and understands that all of us hit different brick walls. Some just wind up with a chair or crutches (crunches as she called them until about 7!) and if we’re lucky, those in our circle of family and friends don’t look, act or think any differently about us.

    So, in almost 50 years I have learned that we don’t all feel the same or respond to the same situations alike. On this I guess we have to disagree. For me, to those curious… ask me, without pity, with genuine interest, don’t be too intrusive and mostly…. Enlighten yourself!

    I look forward to most posts and discussions.