Recently I was cornered in the hallway of the new condo building I live in by an overly intrusive lady. Perhaps it’s partly my fault because I have this new rule that I say hello to everyone I meet in the community so that we can start getting to know the neighbors.
Little did I know that I would be pulled into an uncomfortable conversation. All I said was hi, then this woman starts asking me: “what’s wrong with you?” She points at my knee replacement scars and asks: “were you in a car accident?”
My spidey senses started tingling with the feeling that I wasn’t comfortable where this conversation was heading. But, I explained that I’d had joint replacement surgeries due to rheumatoid arthritis, and backed myself a little away because she was encroaching on my personal space.
“I never heard of such a thing,” she said. She stepped close again, intruding on my space and reaching out like she was going to touch me without asking. I could tell that she was about to ask me more questions, and so said I had to leave and went on my way.
I know that my tone grew cold, that my body language screamed: “you are getting too intrusive!” but this woman was not noticing or didn’t care. I’ve seen her again in the hallway and don’t say hello anymore. I don’t want to get to know someone so disrespectful, even if she is a neighbor. Just seeing her gives me the creeps, like she is spying on me.
It wasn’t the first time I had an intruder into my business, and I am sure it will not be the last. I can’t say that I have a perfect response, but I definitely hold my ground on setting boundaries.
While I am open about having rheumatoid arthritis, going through joint replacements, using a wheelchair, and living with disabilities—that does not entitle perfect strangers to ask intrusive questions or make judgments about me. I generally will answer questions and don’t feel troubled by genuine curiosity. I usually don’t mind explaining to children (within limits). But this interest must be genuine, by someone who knows me or wants to know me better. I will not feed creepy fixations or satisfy gossips.
Often I just find a way to exit the situation as politely as possible. But I also think it’s perfectly fine to say: “I don’t want to discuss that.” Or: “I don’t know you well enough to share personal information.” Or even: “It’s none of your beeswax.”
Just because I stand out, doesn’t mean that I’m on public display or can be interrogated like I should not have any privacy. These incidents are very likely because I use a fire-engine red wheelchair and have observable joint deformities. People notice and have questions. But I don’t want to be made to feel like a curiosity or zoo animal. I am not a rolling freak show providing entertainment.
No, I am a person and expect to be treated that way. I demand courtesy. Maybe my health story is fascinating and complex (indeed, it is!), but it is my personal story and I won’t tell it to everybody. My struggles are not for entertainment value, but have helped to define the contours of my life.
I’m of the age when I can tell very quickly if people are uncomfortable with my disabilities, fascinated, or creepily interested. There’s a wide spectrum of emotion and response, but I can feel it. My hope is to always be treated as a person first, and maybe never as an interesting specimen. I don’t think it’s too much to ask. For the people who need time to get comfortable, I am OK with that. But the people who think they can get all up into my business before we have barely spoken, need to learn that is the fastest ticket to trouble.