Yesterday was my first official evening at college – a lecture on Transition Metal chemistry. People online asked me how it went and my only reply was "Still processing". I think there were 25 people in the class – a mixture of 3rd and 4th years plus one other Graduate Diploma person. The lecture was revision of the material covered in their 2nd year class, and it was strange. It seems that no one else in the class seemed terribly familiar with the concepts I know well, including some basic A-level work on electronic arrangements and crystal field theory, while they were all extremely familiar with concepts I'm shaky on, like quantum mechanics. It also seems that the way they were taught quantum mechanics is entirely different to how I was; they've been taught qualitatively, so they understand what the various quantum numbers MEAN in WORDS and PICTURES, whereas I was taught horrendously quantitatively, with difficult differential equations all over the place in lieu of any actual meaning. I feel... somewhat jealous of them. Having a qualitative word and picture model is vastly helpful in understanding the mathematical model, otherwise you end up with equation after equation with miracles occurring to turn one into the next. So... I'm going to have to get hold of some of the 2nd year Physical Chemistry course notes.
The actual lecture seemed ok, the homework is easy. I'm not sure how long it'll take to write up the notes in neat, but I know I need to do that NOW rather than waiting several weeks so that I forget what everything meant. (Never learnt this during my previous university study, know it only too well now!). I'm currently not taking on any more students so I can see whether I have spare time to teach more people or if all my remaining time is used on studying. Uncertain which will be the case once we're getting proper homework that is actually difficult.
But I am really rather annoyed with some of the other students. Birkbeck is a college for "mature students" - meaning "aged over 21". I had been hoping it would also carry the other meaning of "mature", but apparently not. So far I have been to college twice – once for the induction evening, and again for the first lecture – and so far I have been asked idiotic questions about my most visible disability twice. In fact the same actual question by two different people! And not only that, it might well be the first time I've ever even heard this idiotic question about my disability!
It is... "Is that yours?", in reference to the walking stick which I am both carrying and using.
What are they expecting me to say? "No, I stole it from my granny"? (That would explain why it is made of fluorescent blue transparent plastic, yes.) Or "No, I'm just carrying it for a friend"? It's such a stupid question that the only way to answer it is with a simple "Yes". But that prompts the further idiotic question "Why do you have it?".
I hate that question.
I happen to know that the correct answer is "I was bitten by a Sphinx for asking impertinent questions" (copyright elisem), but neither of the recent askers gave me the impression that they'd even know what a Sphinx was. I ended up looking at them somewhat baffled. Richard thinks that I should have said "It's a walking stick, for walking. Did you forget to bring your thinking stick?", but I don't have the ability to be that rude to someone I've never met before.
The fact is that in most contexts, asking someone you've just met why they need a particular accessibility device is offensive. There are cases when it might be acceptable, but these mostly occur if you yourself are also using an accessibility device.
Firstly, it's offensive because it's asking about something rather personal, which is entirely inappropriate as a first or second question to someone you're meeting for the first time. Essentially, you're asking me about the state of my body underneath my clothes - which is not something that most people want to discuss with strangers! The analogy I've heard is "Do you know me well enough to ask about my underwear?". If I've just met you, the answer is clearly "No". If I've known you for years, you probably know all about my underwear and disabilities already.
Secondly, it's offensive because you're asking me to justify what is different about me that I need an adaptation. It's a totally ableist idea: normal people don't need adaptations, so you must be abnormal. I subscribe to the social model of disability: all of us have different needs, and people are disabled by the lack of suitable adaptations. Why is it any of your damn business why my needs are different to yours?
Thirdly, it's offensive because you clearly haven't bothered to engage your brain before speaking. Would you need to ask a person wearing glasses why they were wearing glasses? No, because you know that glasses are used to improve eyesight. In the same way, I expect you know that a walking stick is used to help someone walk better - yet for some reason, you feel the need to ask me about it. Why? How is it any different?
Fourthly, it's especially offensive if you are asking a young, healthy-looking person why they need the device. This is because a lot of people still assume that all disabled people are visibly "crippled" or "retarded". If you look normal, you can't possibly be disabled, because that's not how it works, is it? So if you are young and/or invisibly disabled, it's likely that some of the people who have asked that question in the past have done so in a disbelieving sort of way - perhaps accusing you of faking your need to get attention? Or at least, accusing you of exaggerating your need. This means that if you are a person asking that question, it's likely that the invisibly disabled person will remember bad things that have been said to them in the past and so "hear" a tone of accusation that you may not intend.
The thing I find most interesting is that most of the people who've asked me variants of "Why do you have a walking stick?" don't manage to use the words "walking stick" or "cane" - as if they are too embarrassed to say the word. It's bizarre. Does the fact that you're embarrassed to ask me the question not clue you in to the idea that it might be too personal a question to ask?
So I'm having a certain amount of culture shock. In my social circles, people wouldn't generally ask a question like that because they'd already know it was rude. In past studying environments, fellow students have either carefully not noticed, or waited until they knew me much better before asking - and asked much clearer questions. "Do you always have to use a stick?" and "Is your disability temporary or permanent?" are personal questions that nonetheless, I respond to much better; as they imply a certain amount of thought.