Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Two Witnesses

I got the same feeling in my stomach. I was at a conference and a regular blog reader said, "You know a lot of people think you make up stories for your blog because no one can have something happen every day." I was immediately devastated. I don't remember what I said but I remember remarking to myself 'but something does happen every day, I mean I do go through my day AWAKE'. I read another blog a few months ago, I don't remember the blog - sorry to the blog author - said something like, "Having a disability is like a trigger for people to be socially inappropriate with me every day." I remember thinking, "How true is that?"

It was like when I first started getting recognized publicly. I had been lecturing for a few years and been the subject of a one hour television documentary and a 'talking head' on two or three other television programmes. I was in an airport and someone approached me and said, "Are you Dave Hingsburger?" I was shocked and, truthfully, a little pleased. It was a nice feeling. I came home and told Joe who had a 'Yeah, sure,' look on his face.

Over the next several months it happened more and more often. Joe was never with me when it happened and I was always frustrated because I really wanted him to see what was going on. Then we were in the food court in the airport in Minneapolis. On cue Joe had left to get some thing at the Chinese food place and I had picked up a pizza slice and was sitting at a table. A woman approached and said, "Are you ..." and I groaned. She immediately apologized for bothering me and I said, "No, no, it's OK, except this happens all the time when Joe is away. Could you stay a second so Joe can see that you aren't a figment of my imagination?" She laughed and said, "Sure."

"See!" I said to Joe after she left. Since then it's happened several times when we are together and Joe no longer questions my stories about recognition.

Well, on Labour Day we were out with friends for tea. We were all chatting and the woman sitting at the table next joined into the conversation for a wee bit. It was all very friendly until. Out of the blue she leans over to me and says, "I'm a nurse and I'd like to know what caused your disability? What's your diagnosis?"

I don't know what being a nurse has to be with being rude, having no boundaries, and asking someone a personal question, in public, in front of friends, in Starbucks, on a holiday Monday. But oddly, I was really flustered. If I'd been alone, I'd have confronted her for what I considered to be a intrusive question. But I wanted my friends to see me as being more socially graceful. So, all I said was, "I'd rather not say." She looked at me, glared for a second, and then smiled and said, "But I'm a registered nurse," and waited for a response.

Again, I'm not sure what being registered had to to with not having boundaries, not respecting my privacy, not gauging the seriousness of my previous response.

Quietly, but firmly, I said, "I'd rather not say." She was really offended but that stopped the questioning.

It festered in me and I wondered what my friends all thought. Firstly, this kind of thing happens to me all the time. Most of the people aren't nurses, registered or otherwise, most people - even if they are a trucker - feel they have a right to personal information about my disability. But this had happened in front of others. So I asked, "What did you think about how I handled the question about my disability?" Something odd happened, my friends immediately responded about how they were glad I didn't give out the information, about how that woman had no boundaries, about how they were shocked at the intrusive nature of the question. All things I needed to hear. I had begun to wonder if it was just me, if I was being offended needlessly, but here they were giving me support for living a life with dignity and privacy. It felt really good.

On the way home, I thought about that post written by another person with a disability about people spontaneously becoming socially inadept when someone in a wheelchair enters the room. It sure is my experience. But I said to Joe, "At least I have witnesses this time!"



Casdok said...

You have an absolute right to having a life of dignity and privicy.As is everyone.
My son is 'inappropiately offended' everytime he goes out. It is not always easy to deal with, so i am glad you have touched on this subject.
Thank you.

wendy said...

Her (il)logic is quite amazing. Does that mean bankers can ask about your finances? No, really, tell me all about your debts and savings...I'm a professional! It's ridiculous! Maybe you could make up some interesting diagnosis for people like that...create a long, greek-sounding word that means "I see nosey people!"

Belinda said...

As one of the friends,I felt like we were in the middle of a blog post more than once over that tea! I knew it! It was unbelievable to see it unfolding. Yes, these things really do happen to Dave, is what I thought.

The lady was no lady! You handled it with restraint and decorum. But no one would have minded if you hadn't. Hey it might have turned into tag team wrestling!

Kei said...

Your response was right on!
I love Wendy's comment... how's your Greek, Dave?

Anonymous said...

Were you tempted to say "I'm a professional public speaker who talks about personal boundaries and appropriate social behaviour, so what causes you to ask this type of personal question?"

Cindy (the non-blogless)

Mark Pathak said...

Hi Dave.

Difficult situation to be in...forget nurses, I'm a qualified Social Worker, which means you can trust me, so what did cause it?

Susan said...

"Right" you say?


Dave, you handled that woman with dignity and aplomb. I was embarrassed all right. Horrified. But not for you. I was PROUD of you! Proud to be sitting there in that group with you, yes, a witness to this all-too-true unfolding drama. I too thought, (and I think I might have said it at the time) "I feel a blog post coming on!"

Afterwards, I felt sorry for her. "That poor lady needs an education," I thought on my way home.

Then I realized - no-one could have done a better job giving her one than you did right in the moment. Talk about thinking on your er, um, feet! :o)

Her question tried to take away your dignity, the dignity of all of us, really, but you,Dave, wouldn't let her. Your answer "I'd rather not say," was gentle, but had an underlying firmness that was powerful. She was the one who left that Starbucks undignified, and rightly so.

Let's pray she learned something from those four words you spoke. I certainly did. A man in a wheelchair can stand really tall!

Anonymous said...

You should try being pregnant!
Some people feel they have a right to ask about your expected delivery date...and some people aka strangers even want to 'feel the baby'!! Yikes!!

I know how you feel.

Elizabeth McClung said...

First, I sometimes avoid your blog for a while because a) you are such a good writer and it crushes my veil of self-delusion and b) you have consistantly good stories that I kinda want to steal your blog and republish it as mine. I tell people your stories all the time (the one with you and the change machine; the one with you being pushed in toronto).

As for this one, I burst out laughing at the "I'm a registered nurse" line - which is often true and tragically funny. I don't have a problem with that since I have the ability to lie pathologically at a moments notice which often produces mixed results when you five or six people who have totally different accounts see you at the same time. Your way is dignified, with gravitas - but doesn't let you tell people you saved the Dali Lama.

BenefitScroungingScum said...

"Having a disability is like a trigger for people to be socially inappropriate with me every day." Whoever said that was bang on the money!
I so empathise with you, though I need to learn from your confidence, funnily enough I have the confidence to make smart remarks to people like that nurse in front of my friends, but not when I'm on my own so much

Sally said...

Dave, your first para - yes, yes, yes. 9th para - oh, yes, I have often festered - and Wendy, yes bankers do - if you are in a wheelchair; just checking the wheelchair is capable of managing its own finances (yes, it happened; fester fester).

ballastexistenz said...

I have started, for similar reasons possibly, to flinch whenever I hear someone say "I work with autistic children," because among other things it usually means they'll want to grill me for personal information that people don't normally ask strangers. And I have real trouble verbally thinking on my feet enough to refuse to give it out. And if I do manage to think on my feet enough not to say, I often get treated like I'm selfish for not opening myself up to the world as an exhibit on demand.

Jeff said...


As usual my friend you handled it with dignity and class.

I think I look forward to reading your blog because it always makes me think.


Jacqui said...


I'm sorry to admit that I have often wondered how you find something each day to blog about. You must have an interesting life - unfortunately sometimes for the wrong reasons.

You are an amazing writer and I am always in awe of how you make the simplest of things so deep.


Anonymous said...

lol, i love cindy's response.

something like this happened to me in DC this summer--- i was in the metro and a woman (who was with her family) said she was a nurse and started asking me if i was out alone, if i could suction myself, how did i handle my trach, etc.

still trying to figure out if she was that shocked a trachie was out or if she just wanted to show off in front of her family...

i never question your blogs, i think good writers can turn little moments into great entries. :)

Anonymous said...

From a social psychology perspective, people strive to find commonalities with other people. "Oh! You're from Ohio? I drove through Ohio once." Even though this lady's comment wasn't appropriate, I'd guess that she was probably just trying to make a connection with you in the best way she knew how. Cut her some slack.