I, and many other ill and disabled people, have been asked invasive questions by total strangers on multiple occasions. It’s ableist and uncomfortable to say the least.
But what about friends and family? How can they ask about our conditions without falling into the same category as those offensive strangers? Perhaps how can strangers be less offensive and invasive.
Step one is showing from the start that you have respect for their option to decline answering. Just because they know you doesn’t mean they’re ready to share every little detail with you. This can be done by opening the conversation with “I’m going to ask you a question about your health, but I respect that you may not want to answer. I take full accountability if I overstep here.”
Try to know what you can before asking. For example, I’m epileptic so if you want to know what kind of seizure I have try to know the common types so you can ask “do you have tonic-clonic seizures or absence? What does that mean?”
Everyone is different when it comes to how open they are to questions and educating so self-education, even the tiniest bit, can really help and shows you genuinely want to learn for the right reasons. This will make the person more likely to open up rather than take the approach of making you educate yourself entirely.
Don’t start with an apology. “Sorry I don’t know much but can you please explain [insert topic].” There’s no need. We don’t expect you to know everything, sometimes doctors don’t know everything, so we certainly don’t expect you to know everything.
Instead try “hopefully this isn’t too much to answer but or can you tell me where I can find out more.”
Remember it’s not our responsibility to educate you on everything.
Be confident but not overconfident. If you’re shy and stammering because you’re scared to ask, you’re probably going to frustrate the patient. Come in overconfident and you’re going to annoy the person in question. You’re just talking to a fellow human so treat them as such.
Sometimes one of my friends who asks a lot of questions will come in shy and I just want him to spit it out and start to worry it’s going to be offensive but most of the time he asks me the same way he asks me what I want for lunch and it makes it a comfortable environment for the conversation which makes it much easier to answer his questions. What also helps is he has a lot of patience as I try to find the right way to answer the question.
For example, he frustrated me by asking me to lift each leg one at a time and stared at me. Big no. This made me frustrated and uncomfortable. Turns out he wanted to ask how I can move (albeit with limited motion) my leg with functional limb weakness. Once I had the question, I could actually have a conversation, without being a science experiment, and give him the answer he was looking for. However, it wasn’t until the next day that I had the perfect answer which was okay with him because he genuinely wanted to know.
In case you’re now also wondering how it works; the wires that tell me my leg is there, that I can feel it and that it has strength to stand on are mis-wired so the messages from my brain aren’t getting through but weak signals from the wires telling to move it occasionally get through.
This one is especially important when talking to strangers or friends/family that have only just been diagnosed or started new treatment; “Please tell me to leave/change topic if this is too much” or “I know somebody else who appears to be in a similar situation, do you mind if I ask a question.”
I leave you with the most important note of all, don’t make assumptions or ask blunt questions like “what’s wrong with your face?”. This is incredibly disrespectful and falls under ableist micro-aggressions. I’ve had plenty of people, friends, family, acquaintances and strangers ask blunt questions (“what’s wrong with you now?” “why do you look like that” “what did you do this time?” “why are you so skinny?” “why have you gained so much weight?” “why aren’t you eating?” etc.) and it often triggers me to go non-verbal with my autism because I feel so disrespected and unsafe.
Be kind, open, respectful and ready to look up resources given to you and you should be just fine.