An Innocent Question

“Can you walk?”12560574HighRes

It was such an innocent question, asked by a young girl probably 7 or 8 years old. It was asked with no judgement, no pity, no ulterior motive and no agenda. “I can't walk very much. A few steps, but not very far”, I answered. “Oh, like my Grandpa!”, she responded.

I volunteer at a museum a couple of weekends a month, and she was one of our visitors. Our brief conversation has stayed with me since it occurred. It has stuck with me because it was so honest, so clear and so totally straightforward.

The young girl has made me think: What if adults were more like that? I have used a wheelchair for 9 years now, and the number of times I’ve been asked “What happened?” is too large to count. But with adults, an answer from me is often met with “Oh, I’m sorry”, “It must be terrible”, or other expressions of sympathy or pity. Most people, even those who are well-meaning, are awkward around people with disabilities. If we are lucky, they are worried about saying the wrong thing. All too often, they aren’t thinking at all, and just blurt out the first thing that comes to their mind. And it can be really offensive, or hurtful. Even friends who truly care for us can stumble into a sentence or phrase that reveals more about their own underlying fear or discomfort than our feelings or mental state. Sometimes, words are not necessary for us to see what they are thinking. We have probably all felt parents pull their children back from talking to us in our chairs, or adults give us a look that reveals an attitude of pity.

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But the question from the child was so innocent and so forthright as to put us both at ease. She saw me as a person. She noticed my wheelchair. But that was only one thing she noticed. She did not express her opinion and did not pity me. She just wanted to say hello and ask a question. Question asked, question answered, as they say. How refreshing!

I know of one disability advocate who from time to time would sit in a public park or on a downtown sidewalk with a sign that said “Ask me anything.” And people did. They asked about how he was injured, about his mobility challenges, about his overall health, and even about his sex life. And he answered honestly and candidly. Many of his questioners really wanted to learn, to find out about the person with whom they were exchanging conversation. Every person who really listened, really got to know him as more than “that guy in a wheelchair”, came away more educated and more empathetic.

Breaking News: We are all human. We are physically different than our able-bodied friends and family, and we have been through a different set of circumstances, but we are not as different as some would think. We have the same range of emotions, the same desire to be respected, liked, and loved. My museum visitor knew that. To her, I was another person she did not know, a person she could talk to, and a person of whom she could ask a question. More than many adults, she listened and heard a whole human being respond. And I was happy to answer.

“Out of the mouths of babes” we can discover truth and wisdom. If only we would all learn from them. If only that honesty and transparency and innocence stayed with us a little longer. If only….

About the Author - Howard Menaker

Howard Menaker is a retired communications and public affairs executive, with over 30 years of experience in international corporations and trade associations. Previously, he worked as an attorney, specializing in civil litigation. He now devotes much of his time serving on non-profit boards of directors, including a prominent theater company and a historic house museum in the Washington, DC area. He and his husband split their time between Washington and Rehoboth Beach, DE.

Howard Menaker

The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $10,000,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.