how do I shut down coworkers who demand an explanation for my occasional wheelchair?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I am a residence life professional living with multiple chronic illnesses. I have a form of dysautonomia, which has a variety of symptoms including but not limited to being unable to walk. This ebbs and flows in severity: sometimes I can walk completely fine, sometimes I cannot walk long distances, sometimes I cannot even get from my bed to the bathroom. Often when I have a flare, it comes with many other symptoms so I end up calling in sick to work anyway, but I recently bought a wheelchair (over a month ago) to use when I am mostly fine except for mobility. Sometimes I use my wheelchair for just a couple hours until I feel better; sometimes I’m in it multiple days in a row. My direct coworkers have been great about it, as has my supervisor and the head of security, who have gone out of their way to accommodate me.

However, when it comes to other employees of the school with whom I’m only casual acquaintances, people really think my health is their dang business. For the most part it is normal curiosity/concern; people will ask me “what happened?” since they are not used to seeing me in a wheelchair. Usually I just explain that I have a disability that requires me to occasionally use a chair and they get the hint to not ask more questions. If I’m in a good mood and have time for a conversation, I actually like sharing and talking a little bit about what I have and what it’s like. But so many of these interactions happen when I am passing people in the hallway, and I don’t have a quick response. So I end up with awkward looks when someone asks “Are you okay?” and I just say “Yes!” as I’m passing them by.

But some people are outright rude, even though I don’t think they intend to be. Someone who works in the same department as me, but we don’t often work closely together, came up to me the other day in the cafeteria, crouched down and actually got in my face and asked, “What did you DO?” She repeated herself and I said “nothing, I just have a disability,” to which she said, “Since when?” I thought it was really inappropriate and I just said I’ve always had one, I don’t always use a wheelchair, and then she sort-of apologized for being rude and left me alone.

Something that complicates it is that often times one of the symptoms is severe brain fog. This makes it really hard for me to have in-depth conversations and to put on a polite face/voice when I’m actually annoyed at someone and don’t want to talk. Plus, with other adults I don’t care as much if they think I’m rude or whatever, but with students, I want to be able to educate them. Because I live where I work, this affects me even if I am “home sick” — I still might see people around when I go to get food, etc. My residence hall is also not ADA compliant, which means I have to rely on my coworkers and students for help much of the time. People are very helpful, and I have no complaints there, but I do feel like it draws much more attention to me since I genuinely can’t navigate my own building independently in a wheelchair. (I’m working on addressing this with HR, let me know if you have any advice there…)

TL;DR I have a complicated, rare chronic illness, and I can’t figure out a short way to answer when people ask what the hell I’m doing in a wheelchair. Also, am I wrong for being annoyed at this sometimes? I know people are probably just concerned, but it gets really old for me.

Readers, please share your advice in the comments.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 593 comments… read them below }

  1. R*

    I’ve seen this thing flying around the internet where I very tall guy just handed out business cards with the answers to the most commonly asked questions re. his height. Things like, I am 6 ft 7 inches tall, no it isn’t cold up here, and no I don’t play basketball. I guess you could do something similar, and as long as you hand the card over with a smile, people will receive it in the spirit in which it is meant. I’m sorry you are dealing with this. I get not wanting to educate everyone all the time!

    1. Sales Geek*

      That was my first thought after reading the OP’s post. Just the basics and maybe a link to a web site that can be placed after “For more information, see…”

        1. Amy Sly*

          My husband’s a chef. He gets ads for shirts that say “Yes, he’s at work. No, I don’t know when he’ll be home. Yes, we’re still married. Yes, he does exist.” (There are also ones with the gender flipped.) I swear, if I wore one to every family gathering I could skip half the conversations I have.

          In the end, almost everyone’s small talk questions are extremely repetitive. That’s just a fact of life. It’s just that some questions rankle a bit more than “How about the weather/[local sports team]?”

          1. Potsie*

            There are a bunch of dysautonomia awareness t-shirts available. I have found that wearing one on a bad day can preemptively stop the questions (because the answer is written not he shirt). Wearing them on good days can start a conversation when I actually feel up to it. My personal favorite says “It’s an invisible disease until you’re passed out on the floor.”

            1. Erika*

              I have lupus. I was thinking about ordering Invisible Illness Awareness cards. They are available on Etsy and are relatively inexpensive.

            2. becca*

              *If* OP wants to take on this role (and I realize that they might not), a friend of mine with dysautonomia will often make posts on her social media in October (which is Dysautonomia Awareness Month) about what the symptoms are, what life with it is like, how it varies, etc. If OP is friends with her coworkers on facebook that might be a way to passively spread awareness. She could also post a FAQ on her office door or cubicle wall?

            3. NotTheSameAaron*

              Even there are those who will assume that you’ve just decided to take a nap or that you’re just lazy.

          2. jamberoo*

            Ha ha!! I’m in the same situation. So many people don’t understand that he doesn’t have traditional weekend off, is available for dinner dates, or can easily get weekend days off for events.

            It’s amazing how offensive “He’s at work” can be sometimes; if someone pushes, I retort that he doesn’t get paid for extra days off so we decided as a partnership that his time was better spent earning instead of being bored on the couch with a plate of warm potato salad melting on his lap.

            1. Amy Sly*

              Yeah. It really comes down to the same kind of thing the woman who didn’t want to always talk about ducks wrote about a couple weeks ago — people glom onto anything that isn’t completely generic as their “this is what I talk about with X” shortcut. Sometimes that means being “the duck lady,” sometimes it’s being “the work widow,” sometimes it’s being “the wheelchair lady.”

              Frustrating? Yes. Rude? Sometimes. But until “God makes men of some other metal than earth” to quote Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing,” it is what it is, and you just have to figure out how to cope. In this case, a FAQ card with a breezy “I have a chronic condition and this is just a bad day” reply for all but the true jerks is probably the best that can be done.

              1. SometimesALurker*

                I see your point, and for the most part I agree with you, but I think there’s another layer here beyond just the practical upshot. A lot of the ignorant* things people say about and to part-time wheelchair users are the same things that people** are saying or thinking when they do real, discriminatory harm (like building inaccessible workplaces or accusing coworkers of faking their disabilities). Naturally, that doesn’t mean OP needs to educate every ignorant person! But I think it does mean that there’s a set of emotional baggage that comes with being in OP’s position that isn’t usually there for being the duck lady or the work widow.

                *not always ignorant with malice, sometimes just the uninformed kind, but still ignorant
                **the group of people who do real harm is smaller than the group of people who are sometimes ignorant, but it’s still way too large.

                1. Kitrona*

                  I agree. It’s tiring, and it feels like judgment all the time.

                  I also have a chronic invisible illness, and sometimes I use a cane. It was bad enough yesterday that I took my cane to work, and everyone asked what I’d done. Like… well, I stood up for 8 hours a day for the past 4 days? (However, it did help my hip to use the cane, so they can get used to it.)

    2. Me*

      I was thinking the same think except I wouldn’t worry about the smile.

      They are all being rude as hell and the LW is under no obligation to make them feel comfortable in their rudeness.

      I would hand out cards that say I have a disability that occasionally requires I use a wheelchair. Millions of people have disabilities that take many forms. And that while your sure they’re asking from concern and not nosiness, it’s incredibly rude to inquire as to peoples health issues.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        They are all being rude as hell and the LW is under no obligation to make them feel comfortable in their rudeness.

        This. The fact that someone actually got in her face and demanded an explanation as if she was entitled to one is mind-boggling. The hell is wrong with people?!

        1. Jungkook*

          If you weren’t there you can’t really say whether she was “demanding an explanation” or asking what in the world happened. It’s not tactful, but I think a lot of people would just be thinking “wow, that person I know is in a wheelchair today, and they weren’t yesterday, that’s crazy, I want to know what happened.”

          Everyone deserves a little grace. There’s a difference between “intentionally rude as hell” and “curious but sometimes tactless human.”

          1. Senor Montoya*

            We can take the OP at their word as to what happened. OP states “came up to me the other day in the cafeteria, crouched down and actually got in my face and asked, “What did you DO?” She repeated herself and I said “nothing, I just have a disability,” to which she said, “Since when?” I thought it was really inappropriate and I just said I’ve always had one, I don’t always use a wheelchair, and then she sort-of apologized for being rude and left me alone.”

            So yes, this person was “rude as hell”.

            1. Hey Nonnie*

              The “Since when?” is what really got me.

              OP, you are perfectly justified in responding to something THAT rude with nothing but “Wooooowwww” along with an appalled expression on your face. Return awkward to sender.

            2. sunny-dee*

              I could easily see this being more tactless but well-intentioned, though. Like, at first she thought the OP had an injury (hence — “what did you do?”) and then, when the OP said it was a disability not an injury, she was asking when as in was it a recent diagnosis. She framed it poorly, but it may have been coming from a different place.

              1. Hellary*

                Even given your generous interpretation, “what did you DO?” is an accusatory way to phrase that, as if it’s the OP’s fault that if they injured themselves. Even in the most generous reading of this, the person asked needs some awkwardness returned to them, possibly on a platter, with a garnish!

              2. Jadelyn*

                Intent does not override effect. It may be coming from a good place, but it’s still rude as hell to get that kind of pushy and demanding about someone else’s disability status.

              3. Blueberry*

                Why is the OP obligated to reply, and why is it so important to defend this person on the OP’s post? At worst she’s been judged as rude – no one is planning to find her and kill her. So why the Devil’s Advocacy?

                1. KoiFeeder*

                  Speak for yourself. I’m getting very tired of people getting in my face over my mobility aids, I might snap any day now.

                  (this is a joke)

              4. SometimesALurker*

                Tactless but well-intentioned can still be rude as hell. If a white person went up to a non-white coworker and said, “Why is your skin so dark? I thought you were just outdoorsy, but now it’s winter and you’re still tan? Do you go to a tanning salon??” that could be well-intentioned. It wouldn’t make it okay.

                1. SometimesALurker*

                  (NB, I’m not making that analogy to compare with any time you ask someone in a wheelchair what happened, but with the “since when?” and the rest of that particular coworker’s nonsense.)

              5. Kella*

                It’s also just rude to ask for medical details from a stranger, regardless of your intent. That’s a bit like noticing someone isn’t a wearing their wedding ring and saying, “What happened to your husband? Did you get a divorce?”

              6. Greta*

                If she was truly concerned, she would have phrased it better. I am the first to admit that I can be so socially awkward at times, but even I know that if she was coming from a place of concern, she 1) wouldn’t have crouched down to talk to her, 2) would have said something like, “Oh, what happened to you?” or “Are you okay?” and not said, “Since when?” The expression “Since when?” is generally code for, “I don’t believe you.”

            3. CastIrony*

              Yeah, getting in someone’s face is rude, and it makes everything feel accusatory, even if it’s not meant that way. I’m sorry, OP.

              At least the person recognized they were rude and apologized awkwardly?

            4. Diahann Carroll*

              Thank you – the mental gymnastics that people are doing today in the comments of these letters is astounding, lol.

            5. Polly Anna*

              It’s also about the OP’s perception of the interaction. It’s simply naive and a little bit obnoxious to expect people to not ask. That’s just not a real-world expectation. What kind of cold, cynical world would we live in if people didn’t care enough to ask about something like this?
              I’m sorry OP is ill and sometimes suffers, and I’m sure it can be intensely frustrating; but you have to give people benefit of the doubt.
              Generally speaking, people are nice.

              1. Arts Akimbo*

                I’m sorry, are you telling the lady with a chronic disability that *she’s* the ones being “naive and a little bit obnoxious to expect people not to ask”?

                I am truly stunned. This is not nice. Perhaps give her, and all people who are different, the benefit of the doubt that intrusive questions are exhausting.

                1. Julia*

                  This. Plus, there’s a HUGE difference between going “oh, are you okay?” because this is the first time you see someone you know in a wheelchair, and DEMANDING to know why or accusing them of having “done” something.

                2. Ann O.*

                  They don’t know that she has a chronic disability. If they knew, they wouldn’t need to ask.

                  It is naive to expect people not to ask when a situation appears like someone has suffered some form of injury or sudden illness. Because the flip side to how annoying it is to be asked about something that is, for you, a reoccurring event, is that it feels isolating and cold to have no one express concern when it actually is injury or sudden illness.

                  Sometimes things can be annoying or upsetting without anyone doing anything wrong. And we just have to figure out how to navigate predictable events as best we can.

                  Now that doesn’t excuse rude behavior like the specific incident described of the worker getting in the OP’s face because that would be rude under any circumstances. But

              2. Ramona Q*

                The OP (and everyone else) certainly does not “have to” give others the benefit of the doubt. Good lord. Perhaps YOU think everyone is nice and would like to arrange your own behavior with that in mind; you have ZERO standing to assume others want to make the same decision under different sets of circumstances in THEIR lives.

              3. scribblingTiresias*

                …okay, have you ever heard of “staffishness”? Or “Nice Lady Therapists/Nice Lady spEd Teachers”?

                in the context of disability, “nice” is very much different from “good”.

              4. Bagpuss*

                “It’s simply naive and a little bit obnoxious to expect people to not ask. That’s just not a real-world expectation. ”

                It’s really not.
                People asking, politely, if she is OK, because they were not aware that she used chair and think that she has been hurt is something it is reasonable to expect.
                However, it is not remotely naive or obnoxious to expect people to meet basic standards of politeness and respect for others but not cross-examining others on their medical history or disability, which is what OP is describing. It is not caring to try to interrogate someone about their health. Caring would be doing things like asking whether she needs assistance, if she appears to be struggling, treating her like a person not focusing on the chair, and if you do ask questions, even well meaning ones like ‘are you OK’, ;listening to the answer and paying attention to whether it invites any further comment or query, and not asking unnecessary or intrusive questions.

                also, while it is useful for people in general to gain a better understanding of disability, invisible disabilities etc. it isn’t OPs responsibility to educate them. despite that, she’s said that she is happy to give people information about her condition to aid understanding, when she has the time and energy to do so, but that is her going above and beyond- she doesn’t owe anyone those explanations.

              5. Elizabeth West*

                Generally speaking, people are often tremendous clueless nosy assholes too, or the OP wouldn’t need to ask this question of Alison in the first place.

        2. KayDeeAye*

          But wait – not all of them are being “as rude as hell.” Some are, for sure, and the OP should feel free to be as blunt and/or evasive as she wants with those.

          But asking someone you know and who you’ve always seen walking why they are in a wheelchair isn’t inherently rude. Insisting on an answer certainly is, but surely when you see a colleague or someone else you know with a cast or a neck brace or a wheelchair, it’s human nature to say “Oh my goodness – what happened?” Now, the OP is under no compulsion to satisfy their curiosity either, but she says she doesn’t mind providing education about these things under some circumstances. So I think her responses are fine. She should just feel free to only use the more informative ones when she’s in the mood/has the time/is asked politely.

          1. Blj531*

            And presumably some of the natural reactions of “omg are you ok” should calm down as she’s uses the chair more often- I absolutely would ask (and then, I hope, take a hint) the first time but would not do so subsequent times.
            The rudeness is a different matter, although I can see someone thinking it is more polite (I am not a chair user, do not know feelings of chair users on such a thing) to get down to the level of someone in a chair to speak to them, if that is what happened.

            Also, your university needs to move you to an accessible home. Having worked in res Ed I know that there are complications with that because of coverage/areas of campus, but they need to find a way to accommodate you.

            1. Quickbeam*

              I attended a “historic” university and was on crutches much of the time. Many of the buildings got a pass on ADA compliance because of landmark/historical status. Even so there are fixes out there for things like cafeterias and residence halls. I’d push a little harder, it’s 2020.

          2. AnotherAlison*

            Agree with this. I worked with a person with MS who used crutches or a wheelchair, and a guy who had surgery and was temporarily in a wheelchair (but nothing else physically visible to clue in the casual observer that it was surgery and temporary). I never asked them what happened because I’m not the type to ask people personal questions, but particularly when they are not folks you work with daily, it is natural to ask and some would consider you rude if you didn’t. I can see the opposite email from someone who was offended that they had a visible physical change and no one even asked them about it. OP can answer as she wishes, but I agree the askers aren’t inherently rude.

            1. TootsNYC*

              I never asked them what happened because I’m not the type to ask people personal questions, but particularly when they are not folks you work with daily, it is natural to ask and some would consider you rude if you didn’t

              Actually, i think it’s RUDER by far to ask such questions about people you do NOT work with daily. You aren’t close enough to them to have that be information that you can use in any practical way.

              As for whether people would think you’re rude for not mentioning their wheelchair, I think they’ll live.

              I have refined my own response in these sorts of situations. I don’t say anything most of the time, but if I did, I say, “Oh, I hope this isn’t serious,” or “The chair is new, yes? I hope things go well.”
              So just good wishes, with NO question that needs answering.

              1. KayDeeAye*

                There is a big difference in what is allowable with someone you know and what is allowable with a stranger. Asking a stranger, “Hey, why are you in a wheelchair?” is rude. Rude, rude, rude, rude. Asking someone you know but had no idea that they ever needed a wheelchair, “Are you OK? What happened?” is not rude, at least not *automatically*. It’s possible to ask this question rudely, of course – it’s possible to ask almost anything rudely – but it’s not an inherently rude question.

                But even with the most polite enquiry, the OP doesn’t have to answer, of course.

              2. It's a No From Me*

                As a person living with MS I can’t imagine myself ever considering someone rude if they didn’t ask me “what happened”? I would much prefer that people ignore my physical changes and treat me like they normally do.

                I’m very curious where your comment that “some would consider you rude if you didn’t (ask people personal questions)” is coming from. Have you experienced that yourself?

                1. Rebecca*

                  I guess the concern is that you seem uncaring. In my office we do chat and share updates about each other’s lives, not all the time and often only with selected people but we do have relationships and genuinely care about each other. In that context if a co-worker of mine showed up one day to our office with an obvious injury or showing signs of being very distressed I think it would be quite natural for me to be concerned and show that concern by asking (hopefully appropriately sensitive questions, backing off if it’s clear they don’t want to talk) and kind of uncaring if instead ignored it and started asking for updates on the TPS report as though nothing had changed. Suddenly being in a wheelchair isn’t necessarily an injury but often people will assume that.

                  There’s also (and this might be a UK thing) a kind of etiquette where some people will be reluctant to “go on about” their problems and end up never volunteering information until asked, which means they won’t share until someone asks. When my dad was dying I hated the thought of “bringing people down” by just springing the latest, usually bad news (he’s in hospital again and can’t breathe/it’s spread to his brain etc) so I almost always waited until someone asked after him and I appreciated when they did. I know that’s a bit ridiculous and unnecessary but it’s how I was brought up.

                  I completely understand that with a chronic illness you would get fed up of repeating the same information, especially to people who don’t understand your condition or know you well and would rather people just leave it alone but

                2. doreen*

                  I don’t know that I would call it “people considering others rude” exactly, but I have experienced people upset because coworkers or acquaintances “ignored” the fact that they had a cast, were using crutches, a wheelchair, a walker, etc. when they weren’t last week or yesterday and didn’t even ask what happened. I think this is one of those things where your feelings are going to be very dependent on your own experience – because those people who were upset because they were “ignored” invariably were in some sort of accident ( maybe a car accident, maybe falling down a flight of stairs) and the crutches/wheelchair/cast/walker were temporary. They weren’t faced with the prospect of getting these questions for the rest of their lives.

                3. 'Tis Me*

                  Also in the UK and can confirm when I’ve been limping around the office, grimacing in pain, multiple people asked if I was OK.

                  When I fell over at work because I was unwell (a severe headache and brainfog meant I was having to consciously plan “open the door, it’s heavy so will need to lean a little, walk through doorway, let go of door” and mentally rehearse this in my head, then somebody opened the door from the other side and held it open for me; I couldn’t recalculate what I needed to do on the fly and trying meant I dropped the mental thread keeping me upright) the guy who saw me do it was concerned and also told one of the floor’s first aiders about it so she came to check if I was OK and convinced me I really should go home.

                4. Ann O.*

                  You have really never encountered people who consider it rude to have their visible injuries ignored? Because this seems really common in my life!

                  And I’m one of them! It is hella isolating to have visible signs of something being wrong and having no one express concern or care to ask what’s going on! Heck, I know it’s generally considered verboten in progressive circles to comment on bodies, but back when I was in the worst of my IBS symptoms, I really wish some of my friends had sat down and let me know how horrible I looked. It would have helped me take my illness a lot more seriously to know that it wasn’t just in my head (and looking at pictures from that time period, it is so obvious that something was seriously wrong with me).

                  I don’t think this is unusual at all. I think there’s simply a clash of interests between what feels better when a situation is the result of a chronic condition and what feels better when a situation is the result of an event or unknown condition.

                5. Bagpuss*

                  I agrree with KayDeeAye*

                  I think there is a difference between people you know, such as friends and co-workers, asking, and total strangers doing so.

                  I can see that it can feel isolating and that people don’t care, if your coworker who you see on a daily basis doesn’t say anything when you show up with a visible injury or change in mobility.

                  Random person you don’t know or barely know? It’s going to come over as much ruder and appropriate. Especially if they are only approaching you to ask, rather than because they would need to speak to you anyway.

              3. Kella*

                There are plenty of people with temporary or chronic health conditions that are visible that do not want to talk about it with a stranger and would not consider it rude to not ask about the change. Talking about something painful and traumatic with a stranger isn’t fun!

          3. Me*

            All of them are being rude as hell.

            It is 2020. We know it’s rude to ask about peoples disabilities.

            Asking if someone is ok is fine. Asking what is wrong with them is not.

            Much like asking someone about whether they’re going to have kids or are pregnant. You just don’t and no amount of good intent makes it not rude.

              1. Jack Russell Terrier*

                Yes – you have no need to know what happened / what is wrong. You’re concerned so you ask if they’re ok. That is all.

            1. KayDeeAye*

              I’m sorry but I just don’t get this. If you see someone you know – that’s important because it’s almost always rude to ask these questions of strangers – with a cast or a wheelchair that they didn’t have the last time you saw them, it’s not rude to ask what happened. I just don’t see why makes “Are you OK?” polite, and “Oh, my goodness – what’s happened (since the last time I saw you)?” rude. That makes no sense to me.

              It’s also, of course, not rude to decline to answer. That’s entirely up to the person being asked.

              1. Jennifer Juniper*

                Is it acceptable to ask a previously apparently able-bodied friend, colleague, or acquaintance if there’s anything you can do to assist them if you see them with a cast or a mobility device? I’m speaking of asking what kind of assistance they’ll need for getting around, reaching for things, etc.

                1. NothingIsLittle*

                  Depends on where you live and the person in particular. I have a physical disability and walk with a cane. It doesn’t bother me to be asked if I need help because it’s usually coming from a good place. Some people don’t have the energy to deal with being asked and would be bothered.

                  I think, generally, it’s fine to ask if someone would like help unless you know it would bother or offend them. That might change based on regional culture and how well you know the colleague in question.

                2. TiaRachel*

                  When I’ve been in that situation, I’ve made a point to phrase it like ‘do you need help with anything, or have you got it?’ That offers assistance (allowing them to determine what that assistance might be) and presumes competence (both in terms of “I’m aware you’re capable” and “you know what your needs are”).

                  (Because one of the things about having a chronic/permanent disability is that people often assume global incompetence & treat you like a particularly inept child.)

              2. Blueberry*

                You’re demanding an explanation from them, with the implicit message that then you get to judge if their explanation is sufficient.

                If your goal were to be helpful you’d ask, “Hey, do you need any help?” not “Please explain what happened to satisfy my curiosity and/or let me judge you on whether you actually need and deserve the assistance you’re using.”

                1. KayDeeAye*

                  Asking isn’t the same as demanding. Of course demanding an answer would be unspeakably rude, but the OP doesn’t say that everyone “demands” an answer – just some.

                  And by the way, I think asking someone if they need help when they appear to be managing just fine is a bit rude, even if it’s meant well. It’s definitely presumptuous. If someone appears to need help, you can ask (not demand, of course), but if they are moving that wheelchair along just fine or using those crutches in a practiced way, asking if they need help is actually not helpful at all, or so I’ve heard from people who use wheelchairs or crutches.

              3. Kella*

                Asking “What happened” is really frustrating for disabled people because your premise around why someone would use a wheelchair is wrong. Something doesn’t have to *happen to you* in order to require one. Sometimes nothing happened, you’ve just never seen them use a mobility aid. If you know them well and know details about their life, it makes sense to ask. But if you don’t know that much about them, it’s much more polite to ignore it or say, “This is new, did something happen?” instead of “what happened?”

              4. Italic*

                I think people mean well by asking, but as someone with sciatica who is really tired of being asked if I’m limping, please, don’t ask these kinds of questions.

                I feel self-conscious about my limp, and it’s been going on for a couple years now. There might or might not be a surgical fix (don’t know yet). It’s been depressing to deal with the chronic pain and limitations, and I hate it when people ask me about it.

                I have never commented on anyone else’s limp or injury or disability, so I’ve been unpleasantly surprised by how many people do this.

              5. 'Tis Me*

                I think it depends on how close you are to some degree? But e.g. If you know you’re going to the same on-site meeting as a colleague on crutches and typically you’d just grab your laptop and maybe a drink, “I’m happy to carry your stuff to the X meeting if that would be useful?” might be appreciated. (Maybe it’s a British thing but that sort of thing is easier for me to take somebody up on than “let me know if I can do anything to help”…)

            2. Greta*

              Never, never, ask a woman if she is pregnant/congratulate her on her pregnancy/ask her when the baby is due unless you know with 100% certainty that she is pregnant. If the answer is no, then you will have ruined her day by letting her know that she is fat enough to pass for pregnant. This can be especially hurtful to women who are trying to lose weight. Yes, I realize that some people don’t mind being fat or being reminded that they are fat, but most people, especially women, will find it offensive.

          4. Richard Hershberger*

            This. There is this idea floating out there that one should never comment about such things, but this is more of an internet notion than a real world one. In the real world, pretending not to notice that an acquaintance suddenly appeared in a wheelchair would be very weird. The rudeness comes from not taking the hint, once said hint has been given.

            1. KayDeeAye*

              Well put. I’m just imagining running into someone I know who is “suddenly” (at least as far as I know) in a wheelchair, and…I’m supposed to ignore that? As if it’s not important? As if I am so self-centered that I haven’t even noticed it? As though this major change (AFAIK) is of no interest to me?

              I get why being asked would be tiresome sometimes, but at those times when it’s tiresome, the person being asked is under no obligation to answer. Asking the question – again, this is only of someone you know, not of a stranger – isn’t rude. Insisting on an answer is rude. Really rude.

              1. Blueberry*

                I like how you managed to spin “Hey do you need help?” in the worst way possible — it contrasts nicely with an actually disabled person commenting just above your comment that they don’t mind being asked that question and that sometimes others do.

                But here’s another approach: What does “What happened to you/what did you do to yourself?” tell you that helps the person you’re asking that “How are you? Can I be helpful?” does not? As opposed to what it does to satisfy your own curiosity?

                1. KayDeeAye*

                  Jeez. So say I have a colleague named Chris. As far as I know, Chris has no difficulty walking. Then one day I run into Chris, and he’s in a wheelchair or he’s leaning heavily on a cane. And I’m supposed to ignore that wheelchair or cane and say “How are you? Can I help you?” That doesn’t strike you as a odd and unnatural? Really? Well, it does me.

                  My natural instinct would be to ask what happened – partly out of curiosity but also out of genuine concern. I still don’t think that’s rude (though no doubt if Chris has already answered that question 16 times that day, it’s probably pretty tedious). If after I asked, Chris said, “Eh, it’s nothing interesting. How have you been?”, it would indeed be rude of me to badger poor Chris for an explanation.

                2. 'Tis Me*

                  I’d probably go with *hand wave indicating mobility aid* “Everything OK?” (or possibly a puzzled look and silence if it’s first thing as sometimes I turn into a mime then). If the answer is “yes” or “eh”, they don’t want to talk about it. If they do they can.

                3. Former prof*

                  ‘Tis Me’s suggestion is spot on. I wear braces under my clothing, and come summer, everyone I know ( and many complete strangers) want to know what I did to myself. Nothing! This is just my life. I welcome the understated question that I can just wave off – “no big deal”.

                  I think some commenters have missed the “brain fog” part of the original letter. Some days OP just doesn’t have the bandwidth to think of clever ways to fend off questioners. My disease has similar symptoms. So you might think you are asking a harmless question that shows concern, but I might read it as another drain on my limited energy that day. But I can deal with someone just saying “OK?”

              2. Quickbeam*

                I’m an interpreter for the Deaf. When I am not working but living my own life and come upon a Deaf person obviously struggling in a retail or government setting, I sign “can I help?”. If they ignore me or tell me to F*** off, I do. However if they say yes, I help. That’s the implicit contract. I offer with the understanding my help may be annoying. It’s about 50/50.

              3. Polly Anna*

                KayDeeAye sees the world in a mainstream, realistic way. Some of these comments are absurd.

            2. Gail Davidson-Durst*

              Yes, this says it perfectly. I even find I tend to the “mind my own business” end of things so much it sometimes comes across as cold or distant! People seemed boggled that I didn’t know a co-worker had gotten a vasectomy earlier this year, LOL. There’s just no perfect answer for every situation. Trying to be warm and friendly and taking hints is the best we can do, I think.

              1. KayDeeAye*

                Whether someone has had a vasectomy or not is one of those things I’d rather NOT know about a coworker. :-)

                1. Diahann Carroll*

                  I had a coworker I had known for all of three months at the time tell me he got one. I was like, “…mmmm, okay.”

            3. Rusty Shackelford*

              In the real world, pretending not to notice that an acquaintance suddenly appeared in a wheelchair would be very weird. The rudeness comes from not taking the hint, once said hint has been given.

              This. I am very much a mind-your-own-business type of person, but if I showed up in a wheelchair one day, and none of my coworkers asked about it, I’d find it very peculiar and unfriendly. Now, if I answered “I have a disability that means I need a wheelchair occasionally,” I think it should end right then and there.

            4. Italic*

              Maybe awareness is only beginning to grow about this, but please, let the awareness grow. These questions are tiresome and intrusive. I am very tired of answering such questions.

              There’s a huge difference between a close friend asking, and various colleagues from work asking. Unless you know someone very well, ask generally “how are you?” and give the person space to either talk about the disability or not talk about it. You can show caring without being intrusive.

          5. Quill*

            Problem is that when you get one person being rude as hell and 9 people being clueless, they don’t average out into a 90% non-frustrating day.

            Especially if you think it’s going to happen again tomorrow.

        3. Fikly*

          It’s not mind-boggling at all. It is the every day life of people who do not appear disabled enough to satisfy people, yet use things for disabled people, like disabled parking spots (and they have a disabled permit, no less).

          1. Jennifer Juniper*

            Hopefully, with an increasingly aging population, most people would have gotten the memo that lots of disabled people can’t walk far because of arthritis, heart problems, lung conditions, asthma, and a host of other common and invisible illnesses.

              1. Julia*

                My “brother-in-law” told me I was too young to be taking medication. Thanks, dude, would you mind telling that to mother nature instead of me?

              2. TiaRachel*

                my elderly neighbors who 15ish years ago were telling me ‘you’re too young for that!’ are now enjoying themselves with ‘welcome to Old Age!’

      2. Elenna*

        I mean, the person who got in OP’s face and demanded to know what they did was rude, for sure, and probably some of the other people are too. But even non-rude people might ask just out of concern, in an “oh no, you’re in a wheelchair now, are you okay” sort of way.

    3. Lolopop*

      This was going to be my suggestion. Have a little bag/pouch filled with little slips of paper explaining (how little or how much) what you want people to know. I have a colleague with a disability who employs this method. (Granted, he is in a mobility device 100% of the time but its a recent development so he wanted a way to explain without the need for him to actively explain). I suggest leaving the pouch always attached to your chair. That way you dont forget in your occassional brain fog. Hand it to people and say “thanks for asking, that explains it all. bye bye”

    4. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      Put the details on the back of a business card with the company name on it.
      Hand it out saying:
      Here’s my business. It’s Nunya.

      1. OklahomaMama*

        You win! *thumbs up*
        I use a cane for a neurological disorder and Nunya is going into my lexicon today :)

    5. GDUB*

      A friend of mine who has a disability that prevents her from speaking clearly uses a card like this. It’s a bit different — she actively offers it to people so that they will pay careful attention to her speech so that they can understand her. But it works well for her, and it might be a good tool here.

    6. Elenna*

      I like the idea of having cards. I was going to suggest that OP memorize a few sentences of explanation so they don’t have to think on the spot about what to say, but cards are probably easier.
      Also, maybe include something about what you do/don’t need coworkers to do? Because often people want to be helpful but they don’t really know how. Something like “No need to fuss over me, I’m just as fine as I’ve ever been, but I’d appreciate some help with the stairs in MC”. Except better written and fitting your situation.

      1. Jennifer Juniper*

        Yay, Elenna! That would be perfect! I’d get extremely anxious if I saw a previously able-bodied person with a mobility device, because I’d worry I was not helping them when they needed help, or not helping them properly.

    7. Socrates Johnson*

      My ex bf’s brother was super tall and had a shirt that said “no I don’t play basketball, do you play miniature golf?” sorry, probably not helpful to the OP, but thought I’d share that tidbit

    8. Flower*

      I have a friend with a congenitally paralyzed ankle who made a shirt saying “Leg Story $5” and shared it with others.

      It’s a tongue in cheek means of pointing out that it’s asked a lot and not really random people’s business.

      1. Minnesota Nice*

        That is hilarious! It’s a great way to highlight how those questions become tiresome very quickly, and the emotional labor of having to explain over and over again. People aren’t entitled to an answer from you just because they asked!

        1. Kitrona*

          If you know someone with a Cricut/Silhouette, that’s another option.

          I may have to make one for myself since I’m having to use my cane more…

    9. not that kind of Doctor*

      A friend of ours did this when she broke her neck(!) in an accident & had to wear a halo for 6 months. There were LOTS of questions which she wasn’t always up to answering, so she printed a bunch of cheerful yellow cards and handed them out to people before they could open their mouths. I’m sure it saved her a lot of effort.

  2. AnotherCorporateStooge*

    “When I figure it out, I’ll let you know!” — cheerfully and that’s it. Honestly, as ANNOYING as this situation is, I’d make it a game to see how many clever responses I could come up with… UNTIL someone like that woman who got in the OP’s face then I’d say, “That’s weird. I didn’t think I owed anyone an explanation for something that is absolutely none of their business.”

      1. ThatGirl*

        I’d probably try to come up with increasingly ridiculous responses
        “This? Oh, old shark attack injury acting up”
        “Bad leg, from when the pirates got me”
        “Oh, I was the only one who escaped from the mutant crocodile attack”
        “Shh, they’ll hear you!”

        1. LibGuideMeIntoTheWeekend*

          Not comparing the two, but when I broke my foot and was in a walking boot for 6-8 weeks this was my strategy in my public facing job. The real story was not in anyway interesting and I got sick of telling it basically on day one.

          1. Amy Sly*

            When I worked retail and dealt with a customer in a boot or a similar accident recovery equipment, my question was “Did you at least get a good story out of it?” Most of the time it was a no, but that seemed a decent compromise between acknowledgment and letting the person choose how much they wanted to talk about it.

            And sometimes, there were some pretty amazing stories … like the woman who’d shot off her big toe in a hunting accident.

        2. AKchic*

          “Completely for show because I love having people demand my medical information in public” with a pointed look at the questioner.

        3. Parenthetically*

          I had a stupid fall when I was in college, and a curved, foot-long gash down the front of my leg was the result. It looked much worse than it was, so I got a million inquiries about it. My response was always, “Yeah, you think that’s bad, you should see the shark!”

          1. TootsNYC*

            I had neck surgery one summer in college, and when people commented in shocked tones on the scar, I told them I’d been on a snowmobile that ran into a fence over the break.

            (the summer break, in North America)

        4. Socrates Johnson*

          I have a really bad scar on my arm from a car accident. When people ask I ALWAYS tell them shark attack.

        5. OklahomaMama*

          I got tired of explaining why I was wearing a neck brace so I started making up fantastical stories like bungee jumping in Machu Pichu
          I also pulled out “my husband beat me up” just to see the horrified look on one old bar’s face

          1. Jennifer Juniper*

            If you had said “my husband beat you up,” to me, I’d start calling 911 to get you to the hospital.

            1. 'Tis Me*

              … You would call an emergency number for somebody who already has a neck brace and has therefore presumably already received medical attention, to get them medical attention? Can I please ask what the logic there is?

          2. jeanjeanthemachine*

            Using a fictional instance of interpersonal violence in this way is a big ole yikes from me, no matter how rude the questioner is.

        6. BookishMiss*

          When i have the energy for it, I alternate between “fighting bears” and “you should see the other guy,” but if I’m all out of spoons I go with a cold stare and ignore the question.

    1. Caliente*

      This is kind of my technique, which I developed years ago. When folks ask me ridiculous questions I immediately feel like we’re kind of doing improv and I can just wing random answers. Once I got called out for it after the fact, like the person found out that something I said “wasn’t true” and had the nerve to confront. When I said, very innocently, Oh well I thought we were fooling around because no one would be rude enough to actually ask that for real, so…. They became mortified.
      So yeah, I’d consider a joke that they even asked and respond accordingly.

  3. Layne*

    I would be super honest and direct – when co-workers ask questions that are none of their business, say “That’s a very personal/inapporpriate question. My health is my business.” With a firm tone (but not defensive), I don’t think a reasonable person could object – they’re the ones being rude for demanding personal health info.

    Your supervisor knows the situation, and you don’t owe anyone else an explanation.

    1. MuseumChick*

      This. A firm but slightly confused tone. “That’s a really odd thing to say.” or “Oh, I’m sure you don’t *mean* to come off rude.” (then just stop talking and let them be flustered) Or “That’s a weird question.”

      1. Boo Radley*

        It’s not a weird question though. It would be insanely callous (almost offensively callous) to see a coworker in a wheelchair and not inquire after their health.

  4. EPLawyer*

    You’re health is nobody else’s business.

    Your answers seem fine to me. Someone can be in a wheelchair and be fine. Just ya know, using a wheelchair.

    For the ruder people, especially when you have brain fog, if they get in y our face, act startled. Actually you probably won’t have to act because WTF. Your simple answer of “I have a disability” is really more than enough. If they demand more info you just say “I don’t discuss my health with anyone but my doctor.” if they persist, return the awkward “Why are you asking that?” Again, you probably want to say these things anyway so go ahead. It’s not rude. It’s just … ending a conversation with a rude person.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        I do too. Hopefully, saying that would ping something in the asker’s mind(s) that this line of questioning is completely unacceptable and they knock it off.

      2. Hey Karma, Over Here*

        someone will tell the truth. “I felt sympathy for you. But now I think you are faking and I feel dumb. Because I am so insecure that what you do affects my self-perception.”
        It might only come out in two one word syllables, but that’s what they mean.

        1. EPLawyer*

          That’s their problem then. It is not OP’s job to “prove” she needs the wheelchair. If someone is so rude as to make it all about THEM, then they need to get a grip, not OP.

      3. One of the Sarahs*

        Does it change your answer that OP is also asking colleagues and students for help regularly though? I think it’s a horrible situation she can’t move through her home/work, but it’s also crappy that her students, who are her customers, also have to take on caring responsibilities, even if just occasionally. It blurs the boundaries as it is.

        But I can’t imagine how it would work if OP asks for help, and when the person responds with a well-intentioned question about what happened, they are told they’re being rude.

        I get that it’s frustrating, and have been on the receiving end, with an invisible disability, but in this scenario some of the people asking are already being asked for favours.

        1. lol nope*

          I didn’t get the sense that they were “taking on caring responsibilities” – sounds like OP probably needs help with opening inaccessible doors, asking people to pass them things that are out of reach, etc.

          Also, yes, it’s fine for OP to say something like “I don’t discuss my health with anyone but my doctor,” even to people who are helping OP open a door or carry a heavy box or reach the too-high tray of mac n cheese in the dining hall. They don’t earn the right to that info by being a helpful neighbor lmao.

    1. NothingIsLittle*

      As someone who walks with a cane and gets these questions a lot, yes, you’re right that it’s no one’s business but your doctor’s, but you still come off as a jerk if you’re cold about it. It doesn’t matter that it’s none of their business, it matters that our culture still accepts these questions as well-meaning so shutting them down with any sort of attitude is considered rude, at least in my area. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

      It would be much better, if you want to just shut it down to say, “Just my disability, don’t worry about it!” or “Just a flair up, don’t worry about it!” in a frighteningly cheerful tone. And then just keep repeating, cheerfully, “I have it under control, thanks,” or, “I don’t need any help, but thank you,” or, “Thanks for your concern, but I have it covered.” Should anyone have to be cheerful about their disability to reassure the people around them? No. Of course not. But that’s the reality.

      The exception is for when people really get into your face about it, at which point I really like and agree with your, “Why are you asking that?” with a pleasant but puzzled look on your face. I’m also fond of, “Well, I think my doctor’s the authority on that,” and laughing as though they’ve made a joke, but this one requires more energy.

      1. Clara*

        I love the “flair up” language. That indicates it’s temporary and under control.

        Lots of good scripts here.

      2. Venus*

        Part of the problem with being rude is that
        1) Educating others about the condition is often useful to those who need help later on. Many folks may think that it’s ‘none of their business’, but the LW mentions a willingness to educate, and if the support system requires special consideration (for example needing help in the Residence Hall) then education can be very important.

        2) When a random person is rude, then they are rude. When a person in a wheelchair is rude, then ‘all people with disabilities are rude’. I know this isn’t true, and most people on this site probably realize it as well, but as you say NothingIsLittle – the reality is that people with disabilities often have to spend effort to reassure the people around them.

        My one thought is that if the disability has good and bad days, then on the days with brain fog and the need for a wheelchair I might be tempted to respond with “I don’t have a lot of energy today, so can we postpone to a day when I’m feeling stronger?” or a hallway response to “What happened?!” could be “Please ask me on a day when I’m walking!”

        1. Fikly*

          People with disabilities are under no obligiation to act in such a way as to make life better for other people with disabilities.

            1. Fikly*

              But when you say things like that comment, the implication is that people with disabilties (or any other minority) should be doing x, because x good consequence will result. That the obligation is unspoken doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

            2. Venus*

              Thanks, yes, I didn’t say that there was an obligation.

              I think my point is a bit different from both statements: PWDs aren’t obligated to make life better for anyone else, but the reality is that they often feel that they do.

              In rereading my sentence, I shouldn’t have included ‘have to’ because that does make my statement untrue. “The reality is that PWD often spend effort to reassure the people around them”. And yes, they do it because there are likely to be advantages (social acceptance, help when needed). Not that I can speak for all disabilities, however I know it is the case in at least one subset with the people I know, and it’s quite a large group (and these topics get discussed at national / international gatherings). “When I start a new job, when should I bring in my accommodations? How do I explain them? Should I be proactive, or reactive? etc.”

              I also have the ‘one bad apple applies to everyone’ experience from the context of having worked in a field where there are few minorities, and comments have been made about managers of different minority types being described in one way, based on experience with one person. It is tiring having to unravel someone’s bad experiences when they relate to me, so the reality is that it’s often easier for me to put in extra effort at the start to save me work later.

          1. EinJungerLudendorff*

            Or to appeal to the anti-disabled judgementalness of the people around them for that matter.

            1. NothingIsLittle*

              Are you just saying that it’s not required or are you implying that disabled people shouldn’t do it at all?

              I may be misunderstanding your tone, but in terms of not “[appealing] to the anti-disabled judgementalness” of others, it often costs a lot less to just suck it up and be politely vague about your disability than to try to fight people’s ableism head-on every time. I just don’t have the energy to snark at every bigot who questions me. (Admittedly, it doesn’t cost much energy for me to be blandly polite even when I have a flair up, I know that other people have a much harder time of it)

          2. Tzeitel*

            Yes, but when you’re at work, you are under obligation to be a part of a collegial workplace, not to mention the perspective that you are rude is a hamper to one’s career goals. You can be morally right, but it’s still not the right way to act at work.

            1. the yikes award*

              You’re right, everyone is supposed to behave appropriately in a workplace. Which is why OP’s coworkers shouldn’t harass OP by repeatedly demanding information about their disability.

          3. JSPA*

            OP expresses active interest in educating (not so unusual for an educator–it’s a deep and pervasive mindset!), just not when things are most rotten.

            People are therefore answering OP’s actual question. (As opposed to whatever other question some may think OP should be asking.)

        2. JSPA*

          “It’s a flare. Rare condition. Ask me on a better day, when I have the bandwidth to explain.”

          1. JSPA*

            “Now is not a good time” (indicate chair, body, head with a gesture).

            “Comes and goes. Please excuse me [keep rolling]”

            “Thanks for the concern. You can help by spreading the word that my chair days are not good for chatting, either.”

      3. Jessica Fletcher*

        So far, I haven’t had to use my roller walker, but I think this is a big thing missed by people without mobility issues. If you’re anything but warm about it, people will perceive you as being a rude jerk, and that will be their take away.

        Those suggestions up top about silly responses or jokes are terrible. Don’t do that. I tried those once, and it just makes people suspicious about the real story since it now sounds like a joke or a secret.

        Since OP doesn’t mind a bit of an explanation but is looking for what to say when her symptoms make it hard to think on the fly, I think the suggestion about business cards or slips of paper are a good option. It doesn’t even have to have the name of the condition. Just, “I have a disability and sometimes need to use a wheelchair when I have a flare up.” And maybe something cheery like, “That’s it, that’s the whole story!” Or “It’s actually a very short story!”

        1. NothingIsLittle*

          Maybe I should have been clearer! Usually, I go with the cheerful “no need for you to worry” type approaches.

          I’ve used the “obviously my doctor knows better than you and laugh like they’re joking” in the specific circumstance that someone was overstepping to question the veracity of my disability. Think in the lines of, “But do you really need a cane?” and “Well you don’t look disabled to me!” It’s reserved for people who don’t believe you anyway. The point isn’t to convince them you have a disability, because nothing you say will do that since they’re sure you’re “faking” or “exaggerating”; the point is to shut them down and disengage. I find that it does that.

          The only other time someone really questioned my disability, it was my father. I tried to explain everything that was going on and really convince him that it was serious. It didn’t matter that my doctor had explained it, because obviously that doctor was a quack giving that diagnosis; it didn’t matter what tests had been done, because Dr. Google said I was fine.

          Obviously people have different experiences and you should definitely consider your regional customs and any prior experiences with the person in question to decide how to proceed. It’s great to engage the people who are genuinely worried about you in frank discussions about your health/symptoms when you’re comfortable. It only exhausts you to do it with people looking to discount you.

          1. EH*

            I’ve always liked “yes, and you don’t look incredibly rude, but here we are” as a reply to “Well you don’t look disabled to me!”

            1. Environmental Compliance*

              *high five* Have one hundred percent said a version of this to some very nosy rude person who was being obnoxious as I parked in a handicapped stall. I was driving my grandpa to the store to help him shop for my grandma’s Christmas present. He literally has 1.5 legs.

              I mean, I substituted some choice words in there for “incredibly rude” as I was wrangling a wheelchair, but same concept.

        2. Merci Me*

          Agreed. I have hypermobile EDS and I tell people “Oh, it looks very dramatic but I have a bad back, so I need to have the right back support when I sit. So it is literally just a chair with wheels that can travel with me to wherever I need it.” I also make sure to call it a “situational wheelchair” because that seems to tap into something for people that lets them contextualize it better.

          I can’t speak for OP, so I don’t know if it would work or be comfortable for them, but my temptation would be in a similar direction. “Oh, some days it’s just easier for me to walk than others, so I have a chair for my bad days.”

          1. somethingchronic*

            Yeah, that’s what I do. I recently hit on “yeah, if it’s a day it’s gonna help, I use it; if it isn’t, I don’t”, and that’s earned a lot of understanding nods.

      4. Sparrow*

        Yeah, I imagine most people who are like, “Oh no, are you ok?” are genuinely concerned but are willing to let it go if they got one of your suggested responses (e.g. “Just a flair up, nothing to worry about!”) I’m all for being less cheery and less polite if someone keeps pushing for details after that.

        I do imagine this will become less of an issue as people get accustomed to seeing the chair. Next academic year, I wonder if it would make sense to say something preemptively to residents to avoid going through this again? Like, “Just an FYI, I have a condition that occasionally requires me to use a wheelchair. It’s nothing for you to worry about, so don’t be alarmed if you see that.”

      5. JLB*

        Love your approach – quick, cheerful response and done! (For most; not counting the truly insensitive, rude people.)

        I had a walking cast for 4 months last year, and used a cane recovering from knee surgery a few years ago. My job entails public interaction with hundreds of people, many of whom have known me for years.
        Both times, I experienced an annoyingly endless repetition of the same question/answer. But to the other person it was ONE question, asked out of caring. I tried to keep that in mind.

        Now, even having been through it, if I see a fellow employee suddenly with cane/cast, I still tend to ask. It’s human nature to care about someone, to ask what happened, to offer to help. (Hopefully, I’d never stray into the “too intrusive”.) For me, it’s about balance.

        On the flip side, I appreciate the quick, concise answer and indication of any help needed. The 20 minute monologue of the knee surgery, fall, visit to the ER, details of the medical treatment – not so much. (And, please, I really do not need to see photos or for you to lift your pant leg so we can view the incision!)

      6. Kix*

        I use a walker on occasion depending on whether or not my condition decides to flare, and when people start to look like they are going to ask, I say, “No need to worry!” I find this works well and people tend not to pry after that.

      7. TootsNYC*

        I too like the “flare-up” language.

        Or the “today’s a bad day, so I pulled out the big guns.”
        Or “some days are worse than others.”

      8. Tau*

        This is drawing an analogy to a completely different disability, so feel free to tell me I’m out of line, but –

        So I have a stutter and was also wincing at all the well-meaning advice to shut people down hard. It’s true that they’re being rude and that in a just world you’d be able to respond in kind without negative repercussions, but… we do not live in that world, and OP has to eat. And might not necessarily have a super-sympathetic and also clued-up boss and HR – or want to spend their political capital on this nonsense even if they do, or want to end up in arguments when they’re having brain fog problems… As such, escalation should be avoided.

        Something I’ve found myself is that a lot of the time people react weirdly because they’re thrown by being confronted with something out of their experience (someone getting stuck for thirty seconds trying to say their own name; someone they’ve only ever seen walking in a wheelchair). Giving them a quick script that lays down how you expect them to react can work wonders – like your example of the “it’s under control! don’t worry about it!” + cheerfulness signalling that the correct thing to do in this situation is to ignore it. The people who get in your face are different, of course, but they should hopefully be a minority.

        1. Batgirl*

          This is so sensible. People encouraging hard shut downs are of course supporting the OP’s interactions with the minority, as well as sympathising with her frustrations. However I think it’s really important to reassure people that they don’t have to be constantly combative if for no better reason than that it is equally as draining as not feeling allowed to. Sometimes cheery deflection is just easier and more realistic.

    2. Clara*

      I have a sibling with a condition that seems similar.

      She’s found that if she says “disability,” people want to know facts or talk about accommodations. She’s switched to “frustrating health condition that causes intermittent issues and can’t be cured.” If they press, she says she really doesn’t want to talk about it because dealing with it requires so much emotional energy, particularly since the doctors can’t figure out how to make her better.

      She also sometimes does the tactic of saying proactively that most people don’t understand and press her for details, but she’s sure the person she’s speaking with isn’t like those rude people. She then asks them to tell her a joke or something happy so that they can both walk away feeling better.

      It does require some emotional energy from her, but far less than dealing with intrusiveness over and over and over again.


      1. NothingIsLittle*

        I really like your last line, because that’s exactly the calculation for me. It takes less energy for me to be pleasantly vague up front than to deal with constant questions.

        1. Clara*

          I have my own health issues. Mine aren’t visible 95% of the time. When they are, I get dumb questions.

          I’ve also found that having scripts and an approach to it is less taxing that responding to each and every person as a person in that moment.

          Unfortunately, people who are different for any reason often have to bear an emotional cost even when they don’t want to. We have to manage other people’s emotions.

    3. Senor Montoya*

      My go-to response for rude and/or intrusive people I don’t know or know only as “someone who works here” is a very cold, “Do I know you?”

      There’s also Carolyn Hax’s fits-all-sizes response: “Wow.”

      If OP has brain fog, it makes it harder to remember and to be able to get out good responses. Also, OP clearly is interested in doing some education around their disability, so the cards are a great option. Then all OP has to remember is, “Here’s a card that explains it”. People who continue to grill OP after getting the card: just say, “It’s on the card.” Over and over and over, if necessary. LOL, or keep handing them cards until they go away.

    4. TootsNYC*

      act startled
      It’s also okay to let your sense of offense show. Don’t spend energy trying to avoid seeming “taken aback”–just let the reaction be out there (don’t amp it up, of course).

      Give them some accurate feedback so they can shape their behavior in the future.

  5. Panda*

    I have a somewhat rare condition and some days, I can do stairs, other days I can’t. It helps if the people around me know that I’ll have good days and bad days.

    What about explaining your disease to your students during a good day so if they see you in a wheelchair, they won’t be alarmed?

    1. Artemesia*

      This. You live with these people so at some point when things are going well and you are in a group situation with staff or with students together, just briefly let them know your situation and what it means — and if you wish how they can be helpful when you are having a difficult day. e.g. you may want a little assistance when you use the chair or may want to be left alone to manage — let them know that.

      This isn’t casual stranger you run into sometimes; you live with these people and so it makes sense that they should understand your situation and avoid then asking intrusive questions. It ought to make it more pleasant for you to not have to deal with it repeatedly.

      1. Mrs_helm*

        For people you live with, there are things that could be helpful in an emergency. (A bad fall, fire, or extreme illness.) Knowing the name of your condition (and some way to tell what medicine you’re on) can be important for first responders. That could be as simple as one of those bracelets, not necessarily telling everyone.

      2. LW*

        I did have this conversation with my students. For the most part, my issues are in the academic building with other staff that I don’t live with.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Harness the power of the grapevine?

          “This is normal for me. Some days are good and some days are not so good. My preference is to focus on the work at hand, it’s my “mini-vacation/break” from life stuff. You can help, though. If you hear someone mention my wheelchair, please let them know that my preference is not to talk or dwell on health issues.”

          I call this “third partying it”. You have actually instructed the person in front of you want you want them to do, but you do it under the guise of, “it’s okay to let others know that [fill in with brief message].”

          Hopefully, I would never say anything to offend someone, but if I did receive this answer to me it would read as the speaker trying to be gracious in offering me an out from my own stupidity, but also telling me in no uncertain terms, “here is how to handle this.”

    2. Joielle*

      I like the “good days and bad days” framing – I think most people can relate to that to some small extent. Even though most peoples’ “bad days” don’t require the use of a wheelchair, I think people can understand that sometimes you feel better and sometimes worse.

      1. JustaTech*

        “Good days and bad days” also lets people know that your use of the mobility aid won’t be the same every day, so hopefully they don’t ask “why aren’t you using your chair today?” or “you weren’t using your chair yesterday!”. I would think that would get beyond annoying very quickly.

      2. SciDiver*

        I have a condition that occasionally reduces my range of motion in my legs, so sometimes stairs or even sitting for long stretches can be quite painful, but the really bad days are rare. The simplest explanation I’ve come up with is “it’s chronic, sometimes this happens” when it flares up. It’s quicker than having a full “a few times a year this is bad, but for the most part I have it under control” but still makes it clear that the departure from what they’re used to is just part of my normal.

        1. Batgirl*

          “it’s chronic, sometimes this happens”
          That is such a concise, explanatory yet vague response!

    3. Dust Bunny*

      Second this.

      I had a coworker years ago who had an old injury that flared up every once in awhile. I didn’t know about it until one day she came in limping and I blurted out, “What happened?” Which I would not have done had I known about it; I would just have assumed that it was bothering her and not commented (because I cannot imagine why people think they have any business asking why somebody is in a wheelchair, has a cane, etc.). And I guess that asking what happened wasn’t the worst but I’d have rather not bugged her about it at all.

    4. TootsNYC*

      “Today is not a stairs day”

      Or for our OP, “Today’s a wheelchair day.”
      It says this is an expected situation for you, but that it’s not permanent or constant.

  6. otterbaby*

    To be honest, I think what you’re doing currently seems like the best option. It’s human nature to ask if you’re okay if they haven’t actually seen you in your chair before. Keeping it quick and casual like “nothing major, just my disability flaring up today!” would give people reassurance that you haven’t injured yourself which is probably their main concern. Most sane people should accept that, but it sounds like you have some pretty tactless colleagues. Maybe just use the same script and if they respond with something like “since when” I might just look confused and tell them with a shrug “I’ve always had this!” I would hope that would be enough to make them realize how foolish they look.

    With time, hopefully the issue will pass with more people recognizing the fact that you use a chair sometimes.

    1. Squid*

      I really like this approach. OP, you know your context best, but where I worked in reslife, there was strong pressure to be extremely positive and warm to everyone at all times. (A very it’s-not-a-job-it’s-a-community approach, especially for staff living on campus. The small and insular nature of reslife, both on individual campuses and in general, can also make for lots of internal politics in which being seen as friendly really matters.) Even though you’d be justified in returning the rudeness of people who are prying, being cheerful and matter-of-fact when you’re up to it may be a better move careerwise.

    2. Alli525*

      Completely agreed. No need for extra scripts, a dismissive “oh that’s just how it is today” will do the trick for 99% of people, who just want to know that you’re ok. Everyone else just gets a confused “why do you need to know?”

    3. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      I agree with this 100%. I’m sure it can be annoying to be asked the same thing over and over, but if I saw someone who is usually not in a wheelchair using a wheelchair, if I was friendly with the person I’d ask what happened. It’s not rude to inquire, and you have the right to disclose as little or much as you’re comfortable with, but outside the rude person that got in OP’s face, most people are probably genuinely concerned and aren’t trying to get in OP’s business.

    4. SleepyKitten*

      “My condition is flaring up” is what I was going to suggest. Some other ideas:
      – “Legs aren’t working today”
      – “I haven’t had an accident – I just have to use a wheelchair sometimes”
      – “My body just decides it’s bored of walking sometimes. It’ll sort itself out in a couple of days”

  7. Eric*

    Wow…perhaps it’s just me, but when I had a neck brace (different, I know), I would answer some rude folks…well, “None of your damn business.” Not recommending that (and EP’s answer is probably better), but still…wow.

  8. Eric*

    Wow…perhaps it’s just me, but when I had a neck brace (different, I know), I would answer some rude folks…well, “None of your damn business.” Not recommending that (and EP’s answer is probably better), but still…wow.

  9. Just J.*

    OP – I think you have your short answer already written in your last paragraph: “I have a complicated, rare chronic illness”. To which I would add “that on occasion affects my mobility and requires that I use a wheel chair”.

    I would hope, though I really don’t know, if that would work satisfactorily for most people.

    1. BethRA*

      I wouldn’t even bother with “complicated, rare, etc.” – “I have a disability/medical condition that that on occasion affects my mobility and requires that I use a wheel chair. It’s nothing to worry about” I think adding “nothing to worry about” would help shut down follow-up questions from most people.

      And the people who ask anyway can be ignored/dismissed/told to back off depending on what OP is feeling up for.

  10. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    I don’t have anything anywhere near what you do, but the one or two times when I’ve had a nagging injury that sometimes required me to wear a boot I could usually end most conversations with a very terse “It’s complicated, and it comes and goes” accompanied by a shrug.

  11. NothingIsLittle*

    I would recommend just saying, “I actually have a disability, but I’ll let you know if I need any help!” or “Thank you for your concern, but my doctor has it covered,” if people are being pushy about it. With people asking prying questions like that woman at lunch, “I’ve actually had it for quite a while [or whatever metric you want], but I’ll let you know if I need any help with it!” I walk with a cane, and generally it’s too much work/embarrassment to correct me when I loudly assume they’re asking because they’d like to help.

    1. NothingIsLittle*

      It also keeps me from sounding like a jerk if they actually are asking because they’d like to help.

    2. seller of teapots*

      “I actually have a disability, but I’ll let you know if I need any help!”

      I like this because it effectively shuts down the conversation and also doesn’t require OP to give out any actual personal information

    3. Poppy the Flower*

      Oooh, I really like this. I’ve also had good responses to “I actually don’t want to talk about it anymore, thanks!” + subject change. It’s a little more direct but still gives them a chance to save face (I find that people react pretty strongly to the “none of your business” type comments).

  12. Fuzzyfuzz*

    Ugh–I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this. Totally not the same–but when I stopped wearing a wig after my cancer treatment as my hair was growing back, an acquaintance who didn’t know I had been wearing a wig (it looked exactly like my natural hair) actually said to me “Why did you cut your hair like THAT?!?” Some people can be the worst.

    Would something short like ‘nothing serious–just a flare up’ work? It’s brief and easy to remember/spout off on a mind foggy day.

    Could lead to questions about ‘a flare up of what?’ However, people might fill in the blanks with something like tendinitis, joint paint, etc. and not ask any more questions. Or they might assume you already told them and be embarrassed they don’t remember. :D

    Best of luck with all!

    1. Nel*

      I have a similar condition, I work on a small team but in a large organization. Being open about it with my team helps. But outside the team it’s harder. Being quite young, if I’m on crutches I often get asked “what did you do?” by people expecting a story about a skiing accident or something similar. Then it becomes awkward when I explain.

      1. JSPA*

        People often operate on the assumption that the one good thing that comes from an injury is having a good story to tell about it, so they’re giving you an opening to tell that story.

        Especially when the lead – in is dramatic (“oh my gosh, look at you! What happened?”) That’s the intent. It’s 100% an act of social kindness (only, misplaced) not because they really give a hoot and want to get all up in your business.

        I wonder if part of the problem is that the venn diagram of “people who deal with chronic conditions” and “people who go wild on weekend warrior exploits to the point of injury” don’t share tons of overlap, and are therefore both a bit unclear on what passes for politeness and friendliness in each group. We’ve also had, “I came in clearly injured, and nobody cared enough to commiserate or ask me what happened!” letters. That’s the flip side.

    2. MistOrMister*

      I just….what kind of person would say that to someone regarding a haircut?!?!?! If I think someone’s hair looks nice, I ask first if they got it cut recently (I have been known to only notice months later!) and then say I like it. If i don’t care for the cut I am just going to ignore it and hope you don’t ask for my opinion.
      I am sorry your coworker was so thoughtless. That would be a hurtful question to get at any time, but especially so when you have hair loss due to an illness.

      1. Fuzzyfuzz*

        Thanks! The change was indeed drastic–I went from long mermaid waves my entire life to an awkward Rufio do. With my general aesthetic, it was probably evident that it wasn’t intentional. But why anyone would say anything, I’ll never now! Now, the mermaid is back ;).

    3. Anonymous for this*

      Uggggh, this happened to my young son when we were at a grocery store. My response, very loud, “He had chemo, we’re not sure it worked.”

    4. NicoleT*

      Totally put my foot in my mouth like this. A coworker clipped her hair short, and I commented to her that it looked awesome (It did!). I asked why she chose to cut it and was told she was scheduled to start chemo and wanted to take that part of it into her control. She was far more gracious about it than I deserved.

    5. Media Monkey*

      gah! why would someone do that?
      when i had just started my current job, i was working sometimes with a lady who had previously had cancer treatment and was wearing a wig, although i didn’t know it. we had to go on an overnight trip and she booked us into a 2 bed apartment with obviously shared living space. when we got there she came out of her room without her wig (it was very hot and clearly it was bothering her). i cannot imagine actually saying anything negative about it so i just didn’t mention it until she did, and even then it wasn’t to ask what happened. i mean the answer isn’t likely to be “just a bad hair day”

  13. UbiCaritas*

    I had a bad fall last Feb (broke/dislocated bones in my L foot) – spent 6+ months in a wheelchair and the bones STILL aren’t completely healed. Having spent so long in a wheelchair, it’s very difficult for me to walk very far. But what irritates me is the people who argue with me – “You fell in FEB! You should be healed by now!” (alas, not yet). “You just want to go to the front of the line!” (Nope.) Or even, “I don’t believe you need a wheelchair now.” OP, you have every right to be annoyed. I’m really sorry.

    1. Database Developer Dude*

      “You fell in February, you should be healed by now?” WTAF???? (a = actual). Are they doctors? UbiCaritas, how have you had the self-control not to tell those rude individuals where to get off?

    2. RC Rascal*

      UbiCaritas–you have my sympathy. In 2009 I broke bones in my right foot after a fall. I was on crutchs for 4 months, a cane for another 2, and had a pronounced limp for another 6 months. I tired easily. I had to plan trips to large stores at quiet times. I had a handicapped parking permit, despite being young and healthy appearing.

      People–friends, family, made all sorts of ignorant comments to me. Oh–you should just go ahead and drive! (Really? I can’t brake the car at speeds over 25 mph). Just walk! You should be over it by now! My favorite–the older folks who chastised me for parking in the handicapped parking. (I would shake my cane at them while explaining I had a broken foot).

      It’s been ten years gone by and I still have physical issues related to that injury. My right ankle is weak. I must choose shoes carefully. All the time on crutches, canes, and limping threw my lower back out of alignment, leading to a disc tear. I have to carefully keep up an exercise and chiropractic regime to stay pain free. I regret not using a wheelchair some during that period to protect my back. But, I was young, strong, healthy, and bullheaded.

      The experience gave me a lot of empathy for the disabled.

      1. Gravitas*

        It’s almost a symptom of privilege we have, living in an era and in locations with access to great medical care. For most of human history, a severely broken bone or joint meant amputation, infection and death, or if you were LUCKY a lifetime of pain and mobility issues.

        Bodily injuries can be serious and lasting in ways that are not always obvious to the uninvolved layman.

        How frustrating that people’s response to (often agonizing and slow) recoveries is “but why aren’t you doing it faster?!?!”

        Look, Karen, in 1950 they would have just cut the damn foot OFF. I’m actually doing pretty great right now, but thanks for being crappy about it!

    3. Jaybeetee*

      Who the heck are these people?? I couldn’t imagine ever arguing with someone about whether they “needed” a wheelchair, and I’d never dream of implying that someone was “faking” a disability.

      1. Penny*

        Happens all the time to wheelchair users, especially if they use the chair only part of the time. Seriously, you would not believe the things people feel the need to say out loud.

        OP, I also work at a university and haven’t used a wheelchair there (I needed mine only briefly) but used other assistive devices for several years. The students were awesome; my colleagues were a really mixed bag. (One of them took my cane one day when we were co-teaching and I was sitting at the front of the room and did a Mr. Peanut dance behind me with it. Good times.)

        Developing a script seems like a good way to go. Lots of suggestions here sound perfectly useful. It’s fine to just repeat your script, increasingly slowly or however you want to emphasize it, when people persist in asking rude, intrusive questions about your body. “Can you use a hand?” – that’s perfectly fine. “What happened to you?” NSM.

        In either case, you can say, “I’m fine. I have a disability and sometimes use a wheelchair” or something similar, and just repeat it as needed. So if the person says, “Since WHEN?” – then you can just say, “Oh, I’m FINE. I have a disability and sometimes use a wheelchair.”

        You might also enlist co-workers you like and trust to be alert for invasive questions and give them your go-ahead to intervene as they see fit by changing the subject. So “Since WHEN” gets met with, “Marge, what is the Mermaid Polo Recycling team up to this week?”

        It’s like if someone loudly passes gas. You just pretend you didn’t hear and move right along.

      2. KoiFeeder*

        They’re all around you. You might be in the same state as the random lady in the grocery store who dislocated my jaw because she was so offended that I didn’t make eye contact with her, and you would never be aware of it as long as you made eye contact with her.

    4. Elenna*

      “No, I’m just using this wheelchair for fun. I enjoy trying to figure out where I can go that’s wheelchair-accessible. The best part of my day is having to go out of my way to find the slow, decade-old elevators instead of using the stairs. I especially love it when ignorant asses like you complain that I shouldn’t be in a wheelchair.”

      Seriously, why the heck would anyone think that people might use a wheelchair if they don’t need one?

      1. Evan Þ.*

        In all seriousness, this reminds me of a story from high school. A couple years before I was there, a student decided to wear a blindfold for a whole week to better appreciate the challenges faced by blind people. The teachers and administration thought it was a wonderful project, and she wrote up a report and gave a presentation afterwards talking about some of the challenges and surprises.

      2. Pomona Sprout*

        I don’t know WHY anyone would think that, but I imagine the people who do so are probably the same ones who think people only go on disability because they’re too “lazy” to work (because struggling to live on that pittance is such a luxurious ride that perfectly healthy and ablebodied people are lining up for the chance #heavysarcasm).

    5. Quinalla*

      I had a similar situation with an injury that lasted a long time, but not a disability, so you may want to handle yours differently, but figured I would share in case it helps…

      I broke my hip a little over 5 years ago. I was on crutches for months, then one crutch, then a cane that I used to varying degrees (I kept it with me, but in the office or at home, I’d sometimes carry it and not use it, etc.) In my case, for close folks I had shared what happened of course. For the more casual acquaintances, I just pre-preemptively explained that I had broken my hip in Dec and was still recovering, especially when I was using the cane as crutches people assume an injury, but not for cane necessarily, especially when a 35-year-old is using it. Anyway, I would recommend proactively explaining to people if that makes sense (it may not for you) or yes maybe a slip of paper of card with a brief explanation, with links if you want to educate further or not if you aren’t comfortable. For me, I’d meet people for business or dropping off my kid for soccer and would just bring it up for them – yeah I have a cane, still recovering from breaking my hip, looks like I’ll be fine! Kept it simple and breezy and generally people dropped it or shared their worst injury story with me. I think the cards/papers are good if you don’t want to engage. I didn’t mind, but I think cards let you answer without being rude while also discouraging follow up. You can even put something on the card to discourage further: “As you can imagine, I get pretty tired of talking about it all the time, so would appreciate if you could just hold the door for me and say hi as normal, thanks!” or whatever makes sense in your own voice. Good luck OP!

    6. anon24*

      Don’t you know? If you are under retirement age and get injured, you just eat some healthy food and get a few night’s sleep and your body will fully morph back into perfect condition within 3 days, no matter how bad the injury. Any longer than that and you are just looking for attention/coddling. /s

      In all seriousness, best wishes for a full recovery! I’m sorry it’s taken this long. I think we internalize this shorter healing time because as kids so many of our friends break wrists and are in casts for 6-8 weeks and then are mostly good to go, so as adults we expect the same, but the bones in an adult body are not growing anymore and so they won’t heal nearly as fast as a child’s.

    7. Elaine Benes*

      Ugh, the WORST. People are like that with pregnant women too, they think it’s cute/jokey to get faux-angry on your behalf (most generous interpretation I can come up with) and say things like “You’re still pregnant?! When is your doctor going to induce you?!!” and continue to be insistent or argumentantive until it becomes this mild-to-semi stressful thing where you’re explaining that even though it’s a PITA to be so huge, you actually agree with your doctor’s assessment that baby should stay in until it’s ready. And usually, it’s the people who don’t even know the due date, so I have no idea where they get off just determining that someone should be done being pregnant based on how they look.

      1. 'Tis Me*

        All-the-way-through morning sickness means I’m 6.5 months and the same weight I started so I generally get more surprise that I’m so far along instead. The only person I’ve had the opposite from is my 5 year old and it comes from (a) being so eager to meet the baby she “can’t wait” and (b) that when we look at the “how big is your developing baby and what are they doing?” websites, the pictures look like they’re showing a baby from about 3 months… We went to an interactive museum with a display showing monthly development and I think from 3 months the babies were removable so you could compare size and weight. I think that may have helped her understand better.

    8. 'Tis Me*

      I broke my leg when I was a young teen. It took forever to heal (6 months in with no signs of new bone growth they did a graft and put a plate and screws in). I was given permission to go to the library instead of PE lessons. One day one of my classmates came to get me from there telling me the teacher was furious with me. I was puzzled.

      I went out to the netball court on my crutches, leg still encased in plaster. The teacher took one look at me, said “Oh”, sent me to sit on the bench, then told me I could continue to go to the library instead until I recovered.

      She had decided that of course I must be better by then. It evidently hadn’t occurred to her to ask my class about this because sufficient time had passed so I must have been better and was therefore taking advantage and bunking off at that point.

      Hooray for clearly visible evidence to the contrary! Over 20 years later my shin still has a big dent from that.

  14. Micromanager*

    Next time someone gets up in your space and is rude – I would imagine it’s ok to step away from them and when you’re feeling better – let them know exactly how much they were invading your space and that it is not their business.

    1. Senor Montoya*

      Or since OP is in a wheelchair, maybe “accidentally” roll over their foot?
      Don’t do that. But for sure I would want to.

      1. ADHSquirrelWhat*

        surprisingly difficult to do to someone in front of you, actually! especially if it’s motorized – if you’re hand-pushing yourself you can turn in place, but if it’s motorized, turning radius gets problematic depending on the chair ….

    2. Marissa*

      I agree. And can you have a go-to phrase for when you’re in a brain fog to push them off? Since you don’t mind talking about your disability when you’re feeling well, maybe, “I wouldn’t mind a respectful conversation when I have the time and the energy to do so, but not now. I’ll see you around.” Then leave and don’t allow further questions.

      Super annoying that people can be so nosy (and frequently oblivious to how nosy the questions actually are). But, happy to see the update about your doors being fixed OP!

  15. Potsie*

    I am so sorry you are dealing with this. You are not wrong to be annoyed. When someone is as rude as the woman who got in your face, it is ok to call them on it, especially if they are a student and hopefully can learn from it. “Wow, that’s rude” is sometimes all it takes to make someone realize they have overstepped. “It’s a flare up of a chronic illness. I don’t feel up to explaining it right now” is my go to when I’m dealing with brain fog and having trouble standing. I haven’t had anyone keep asking after that.

  16. Guacamole Bob*

    I don’t have a disability of this type, but I know someone who sometimes walks with a cane, and she gets similar reactions. Sudden changes to mobility generally make people think of injury, not disability, and asking about injuries seems more socially acceptable.

    I wonder if saying something like “Oh, I have a chronic thing that’s flaring up” in a matter of fact or breezy tone would be comfortable for you. I think it gives people the message that your wheelchair is disability-related but doesn’t require you to disclose detail. People who ask follow-up questions to something like that are being rude, and can be shut down in whatever manner you feel appropriate.

    1. Anax*

      Yep, that’s what I normally do, and it works well.

      I actually have dysautonomia (POTS) and sometimes use a wheelchair, so I’m very much in the same boat as the OP.

      (My wheelchair use is usually hypermobility-related, though – which makes it more useful to be vague, because people get really worried if I say that I dislocated my hip or my neck. I generally save that explanation for when I need someone to take it seriously, like for accommodations.)

      (Yes, that can happen. Yes, I’m fine. Yes, it hurts quite a lot. No, I don’t need to go to the doctor, there’s nothing they can do.)

  17. thin acetate frames*

    I have been there, and my short answer is “it’s chronic”. I also prettied up my chair with plastic flowers and butterfly stickers and my some people who
    Used motorcycle flame stickers.

    1. OklahomaMama*

      Chronic is excellent!
      Lately I say my warranty expired and they’re going to scrap me for parts :)

  18. Ginger Baker*

    I don’t have direct advice on managing around disability disclosure and all that – I am sure others do and will share – but I have several things in my life that are “weird” to many/most folks and I’ve spent a lot of time refining the technique of sounding This Is Super Normal when I give a casual comment regarding [those topics] so I thought I would comment on that portion. My experience has been, people very often take their cue from you and if you give a light, breezy comment in an “of course!” tone, people will most often just accept it and move on, where you get a VERY different response if you drift into a PBS Afternoon Special “serious” tone. With that in mind, it sounds like several/most of the people commenting to you are doing so because, having not observed you in a wheelchair before, they presume Something Happened and wish to express their concern/condolences/check in with you to be sure you are okay. So my suggestion would be to practice and repeatedly use a couple of very simple responses that are framed around the “nope this is not new” information, said breezily (or as close as possible anyway) and followed by a quick topic change: “Nothing new, this is my normal!” [if there is a follow up “yep, sometimes I need it and sometimes I don’t. Could you pass me that magazine? Thanks!”] or “Ha, yep, I just got this, it’s great for the days I need some extra support!” [if there is a follow up “Nothing new, I’ve dealt with this since forever! I was thinking about getting a custom paint job done…did you see Star Wars yet? I think this one was my favorite!”]

    1. cleo*


      Most people will follow your lead and the “no big deal” +subject change indicates that they don’t need to ask follow up questions to show their support.

    2. Tau*

      I was trying to get at this idea! A surprising amount of people will just follow your lead, especially if they feel out of their depth with the topic. So:

      – breezy, cheerful tone, quick answer downplaying severity which does not leave room for follow-up questions: “oh, I guess it’s nothing major”
      – dramatic PBS Afternoon Special: “whoa, this sounds really serious! I should ask more questions to show my sympathy and understand it better.”
      – brusque shut-down: …this one is tricky, because the effect you’re aiming for here is to make people aware that they’re being inappropriate. But people really hate being embarrassed, which that falls under, and may decide you’re clearly unreasonable as psychological self-protection. At that point you’re really inviting defensive bristling/counterattacks which will only escalate the situation.

      Given that, I really like your suggested scripts, and second practicing them so they become second nature.

  19. AAM Addict*

    When “I have a disability” doesn’t suffice and they ask more questions, you could say “Excuse me????” in a super confused tone. That gives them the opportunity to rethink the fact that their push for more information is really just inappropriate. People are just the worst sometimes!

  20. NowWhat?456*

    When I was in college it wasn’t out of the ordinary for the RAs and the RD to hold educational sessions for students about different things (eating well at the cafeteria, how to be supportive of a friend who’s suffered a trauma, etc.). It may be beneficial to host one in your building for your students about visible/invisible disabilities. It would be a great service to them before sending them out into the working world!

    As for the getting around independently and relying on students and colleagues to help you, I do believe you need to push HR on this issue. I’m not sure how much assistance you need while you are in the chair (i.e., someone opening doors for you vs. needing to be lifted up/down stairs, assistance with the restroom, etc.) but there should be a limit as to what you ask students to assist you with. Would it be possible to switch buildings to one that is ADA compliant or not as difficult to maneuver as your current one? You could even phrase it as this would be no more different than a desk switch to have one closer to the elevator/with a wider hallway.

    1. LW*

      I’ll reply to more comments soon, but as a quick update, after ages of going back and forth, my office door was fixed yesterday, my apartment door is getting fixed this morning, and they fixed the threshold on the exterior door so I can wheel over it now! Finally!

      1. 'Tis Me*

        Fantastic – sounds like there were loads of reasonably basic things that desperately needed doing; I’m glad that progress has been made.

  21. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    Oh man, OP, I know this feeling.

    Some time ago, I spent a few years needing a cane to get around daily, and a wheelchair when it came to anything more strenuous than a brief grocery trip. I got the “What did you do?!” question and many gross variants of it from coworkers I barely knew and didn’t otherwise interact with, and it never failed to tick me off.

    When it comes to the quick in passing comments like “Are you okay?” I think you’re absolutely fine to answer with “yes!” or “I’m fine!” and just carry on your way. In the larger sense, you are — you’re at work and you’re going about your day and using a wheelchair to get around doesn’t make you not-okay. If there’s awkwardness, let there be awkwardness, because it isn’t coming from you and it’s not your responsibility to resolve.

    In a context where there’s room for a larger conversation, I think you might be well-served to add, “Hey, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but it’s pretty rude to comment on someone’s mobility aid.” Because — well, it is! Does someone with coke-bottle glasses need everyone pointing out “haha, you must be blind without those things!”? From the perspective of courtesy, it’s no different. (From the perspective of how well structures are adapated for you, of course, it’s very different.)

  22. Snark*

    “I have a somewhat rare neurological disability that requires me to occasionally use a wheelchair,” will suffice for polite inquiries and people who mean well and aren’t screwing it up too much.

    “That’s a very personal question!” or with nothing more forthcoming works for rude, presumptuous first inquiries and those daft enough to continue asking prying questions after the first script.

    “Why do you ask?” is useful for otherwise polite people who might not realize they’re crossing a line, but will backfire for folks who don’t do boundaries.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I like these options though I’d add a “well, that’s rude” for people who don’t know when to quit.

      I also like the suggestions from the folks about the educational opportunities though I don’t think it’s your responsibility to facilitate that education. Perhaps another RD can do so on your behalf.

      1. New Job So Much Better*

        I wear compression on my arm, and get tons of questions. Speaking of those not knowing when to quit– some people I see only once a year or so ask every year! If I’m going to give you an answer, at least remember it!

        1. roger that*

          omg, same here. I wear a compression sleeve and gauntlet and am routinely asked what is wrong, including by some people I only see every few months or year who forgot what I said last year: “oh, it’s a long story” or “complications from surgery.” My favorite response to “what happened to your arm?” is “breast cancer.” It usually startles them awake.

            1. roger that*

              Sorry if it wasn’t clear – that’s why I wear mine, too! I didn’t mean that glibly; it’s the truth but also conveniently seems to make people realize that there question was pretty inappropriate.

    2. Lady Heather*

      Do you have a visible disability?
      I’m asking because I don’t think 3 would work and I’m not sure about 1, but you might have experience of it working.

      For answering “why do you ask” – the response is likely to be ‘I’m interested’, ‘I want to know’, ‘I’ve seen you walk’, ‘I’m studying to be a nurse/doctor/tech’, ‘I am a nurse/doctor/tech’, ‘I broke my leg once’, or ‘my cousin’s friend’s neighbour uses a wheelchair so I know what it’s like.’
      None of those actually answer the question “Why do you ask”, but people seem to think they do. Personally, I’ve found that when people offer a reason, the only thing that happens is that it tricks my brain into thinking that I now have to answer their question.
      Might be different for you or for the OP, of course.

      The reason I’m unsure about “I have a somewhat rare neurological disability that requires me to occasionally use a wheelchair” is because I don’t think it’s anyone’s business whether it’s neurological or muscoskeletal or cardiac, and because I’ve found that people tend to reply – in my case, usually with a guess as to the nature of my condition.
      “May I ask how you lost your leg?”
      “I was sick.” (In a tone that says ‘I don’t want to talk about this’.)
      “Oh. Bone cancer?”
      “No, something else.” (Usually in a mildly bewildered tone because I’m consistently surprised at both the audacity in asking further questions, and the fact that for some reason everyone seems to think the only reason to lose a limb under thirty is due to bone cancer.)
      “Oh, what?”

      But my experiences might be culture-specific, me-specific, my-locality-specific.

      1. Potsie*

        I agree with you that #3 will likely prolong the conversation instead of shutting it down. I actually think a modified version of #1 would work though “I have a chronic condition that sometimes makes it hard to walk” has worked for me in the past. They have an answer that satisfies the original question, but not so much that it triggers more questions. If they persist, I just say “I don’t feel up to talking about it right now” and they stop.

      2. Snark*

        Yes, and already I caveated #3 and noted that it could cause backfires with the boundary challenged.

      3. Snark*

        That said, in my experience, giving just enough information to make people feel like they’ve gotten a full answer – even if it’s more than they really merit – tends to arrest the question train in all but the most egregious instances. OP could of course not specify “neurological” if that seems a bridge too far, but it does help explain the comes-and-goes nature of the disability.

        But yeah. “I have a disability/condition that requires me to use a wheelchair when it flares up” would also work. At some point, though, the real dunderheads just need a “Wow, it’s really inappropriate for you to grill me about this, so can you not?”

      4. ADHSquirrelWhat*

        oh gods, how do you resist giving people a startled look and going “what do you mean it’s gone? It was here a minute ago! LEG! Come back, leg!”

        Or – “may I ask?” “nope” …. hey, they asked!

        1. Snark*

          I love that second one.

          “May I ask how you lost your leg?”

          “Nope! Have a good one!” /breezy

          1. Lady Heather*

            That one has worked for me, although I think I’ve only tried it on people I don’t care to maintain a relationship with.
            Being very direct helps, I think because the other person is undeniably rude if they ask again (whereas ‘asking random strangers on the street’ seems to fall in the ‘deniably rude’ category of ‘but I’m just interested!’).

        2. Lady Heather*

          Someone once came up to me on the street to tell me they admired my ‘perseverance’ and I was THIS close to saying ‘Thank you. It was quite a struggle, getting it all cut off with only a nailclipper.’

          And once when someone asked what had happened to my leg, I wasn’t paying attention and absently told them it was burnt/cremated. I mean, that is what happened to it after it was cut off..
          (It wasn’t an appropriate response for the context, but I might repeat that one in other contexts, actually.)

  23. Lady Heather*

    I – usually prosthetic user, occasional wheelchair user – is still hoping that when someone catches me off guard with that question, I’ll answer with “Oh, I wasn’t aware that our relationship had progressed to discussing health concerns.” (In my language there is a phrasing that is halfway between ‘I wasn’t aware’ and ‘I didn’t think’, I’d use that, but you can reach the same effect with your tone or just looking very confused.) However, I tend to just stutter something..

    The problem is that a lot of the people (people I’ve met once, people I’ve been talking to for ten minutes, people I’ve been talking to for a minute whose names I don’t know, people who come up to me on the street without even saying ‘hi’) would feel it totally inappropriate if I were to ask them in-depth questions about their health history, but feel it totally fine with me because I have a visible disability.
    But stressing the mutuality, you’re kind of asking ‘would you find it strange and intruding if I asked you your health history? Yes? Then why do you consider it alright to be asking me?’

    1. UbiCaritas*

      When people ask about my injuries (usually to tell me about some miracle cure their friend/cousin used), I say, “Oh! Are you a physician?”

    2. Senor Montoya*

      Haha, yeah, wouldn’t it be great to say, “I’ll tell you all about it, but first tell me about your last visit to the doctor! Did it go well? What did you ask about? Do you have any health conditions that you’re worried about? Are you on any medications? Which ones?”

      1. Lady Heather*

        When a close family member insisted that I discuss an acute, embarrassing medical issue with her, saying she had the right to know ‘because she was worried about me’, going so far as to say ‘well, when WILL we discuss it’ when I said that no, I was not discussing this with her – I asked her a very invasive question about her gyneological health.

        She was offended.

        I said that I had just as much right to that information as she to mine.

        Since then, when I say ‘no’ about discussing a medical issue, she drops it.

  24. Ruth (UK)*

    This might not work for you as it’s not quite the same thing but you might be able to do something similar…

    I recently took part in a medical test where I had to wear a device including electrodes on my head/face for a month – I had to wear it all the time, even for sleeping, and could only remove it (and change the electrodes) once every 48 hours. Every person and their mother (and their friend and their distant cousin) wanted to stop and ask me the exact same questions about what I was wearing on my face any why. Similar to you, I was happy to engage when it was people I knew, but less interested in repeating the same answers to the same questions for the 190th time that day to some bloke in the pub.

    So… I made A5 sized information sheet FAQs, printed them, and handed them to people when they asked me – if I didn’t want (or didn’t have time) to engage in the conversation.

    I bullet pointed the most common questions and answers eg.
    What is that on your face?
    Do you sleep with it on?
    But how do shower?
    How long are you wearing it for?

    It didn’t put an end to it entirely but it did stop quite a few repeat conversations. Especially when there was a group of people and I didn’t want to them start again each time a new person turned up and began asking… I could just hand them the info sheet and let them read it while we continued whatever other conversation topic we were on…

    1. MistOrMister*

      This really bugs me – that people would just blatantly ask those kinds of questions! If a close friend says something, ok. If a coworker sees electrodes all over my head, alright I guess maybe some will ask, although my feeling is if you wouldn’t usually chat with the person you should keep your mouth shut unless they volunteer information. I think handing out a sheet answering FAQs is genius.

    2. Jennifer Thneed*

      For other American readers, A5 is about a half-sheet. Like an oversized postcard for a gallery show.

      1. Ruth (UK)*

        Oops, I genuinely didn’t know Americans used different measurements for paper sizes than the UK…

        1. 'Tis Me*

          In publishing we have the paper sizes USA4 and A4. USA4 is a little bit wider and shorter than A4.

  25. Ashley*

    I have a chronic illness. It sporadically affects my mobility so I occasionally need to use a wheelchair.

    1. AKchic*

      I would say “… so I occasionally need to use *my* wheelchair”. It’s a subtle distinction, but a very pointed one.

  26. MicroManagered*

    I don’t know if it’s avoidable for people not to ask “what happened” the first time they see you in a wheelchair. They probably think you were injured and are asking the same way I’d ask a coworker what happened if they came in on crutches. For people who ask repeatedly, or who ask intrusive follow-up questions, I think it’s ok to let it be weird for them.

    With a surprised look and tone:

    “Wow. Are you really asking me to explain my [disability/private health info] to you?”


    “Wow. Did you just ask me to explain why I’m using a wheelchair?”

    or (somewhat nicer)

    “I’m sure you didn’t mean to be, but that’s an intrusive question.”

    1. Scarlet*

      This! I second the motion for calling them out, making them explain their question, just like you would if someone told an offensive joke. A lot of times this is the only way to get through to clueless people.

    2. Indy Dem*

      Yes, this is what I was going to say, I’ve often read this in Alison’s advise to rude or inappropriate questions at work, and it really does work. OP, I also wanted to say that all of the responses that you mention in paragraph 2 were spot on! I was an RA then later and RD, and it is really great that you want to educate the students that you work with (and are obviously modeling good behavior for them too!). As far as the brain fog, I would suggest for those you want to engage but aren’t able to right then, say that “I’d love to go into it more, but now is not a good time” or something similar.

      Another suggestion is that many rare diseases (I work with patients who have rare diseases) have support websites, some by medical professionals, others by people who are diagnosed. Some of the latter have examples of how to talk to others about the diagnosis, and some have chat groups where similar experiences are shared. Hope that helps!

  27. hello*

    I’m sorry, I know living where you work can be so complicated even in the best of times!

    For people in your department, one long term strategy is to include chronic illnesses when the RAs/RDs are being trained on diversity.

    I think your explanation “I’m always disabled, I need the wheelchair sometimes but not always” is great. And hopefully the coworker you put in her place won’t say anything again.

    I am so sorry your building isn’t ADA compliant, would there be a way for them to move you to a building that is in a future school year?

    1. Veruca*

      I think “I’m always disabled, but sometimes I need a wheelchair” is fantastically brilliant. Keeping that for future use. works for bracing, tape, cane, walker… anything.

  28. drpuma*

    This seems like the kind of situation where “borrow a busybody” could be helpful. Perhaps a Chatty Cathy or Carl can help you get the word out that you have a medical condition/s that fluctuates, sometimes you’ll need extra help, and the variation is normal for you.

  29. MistOrMister*

    I would think at times when you don’t want to go into an in depth explanation, saying something like, “I’m fine, its just a recurring issue” or something along those lines and leaving it at that is perfectly acceptable for both your coworkers and students. You could always go into more detail with someone later if you feel like you were too short with them. I think using the term “issue” or something along those lines could potentially keep you from some of the pushback. I think a lot of people hear disability and go into “what is it? You don’t use a chair all the time so this can’t be valid” mode. It is completely not ok, but I think it’s unfortunately not uncommon. I feel people are more able to accept terms like issue without feeling like they need to be the disability police. Again, it’s not ok at all, just one thing to consider.
    Good luck navigating this!! I feel for you OP. I have a recurring stomach thing that, while it sucks a lot, is nowhere near as bad as the things loads of other people go through. But boy does it stink to wake up knowing you’re having a flare up and lucky you, there’s nothing to do but ride it out. Ugh. I don’t have any advice regarding getting your building up to scratch, but I really hope that gets fixed for you soon. It’s bad enough to feel awful, but to not even be able to get around your own space while feeling horrible is a special kind of suffering.

  30. Scarlet*

    Whoaaaa “what did you do?”. I cannot even wrap my head around the level of rude and just….entitlement to an explanation. OP I am so sorry that happened to you. What the actual F is wrong with that person.

    If I were you, I would honestly just give them a confused, disgusted look and go about my business. Ain’t nobody got time for that nonsense. You are not obligated to even respond to people like that, and if you chose to, you are certainly not obligated to be polite. I’m so sorry you have to deal with that.

  31. Don*

    “I’m not interested in talking about my health right now” seems like good boilerplate for everyone, both the well-meaning folk who might just be surprised and concerned you had a new injury and the noseypants rudes who can’t be arsed to be decent human beings. You could always say “private health matters” to MYOB aspect and perhaps clue folks that they’re wandering onto thin HR ice.

  32. Properlike*

    Bumper sticker on the back of the chair: YES, I’M FINE. Point to it as you’re wheeling away?

    1. Fikly*

      Except if this was me (And I have a chronic disabling health condition that means I sometimes use a wheelchair) I am not fine. I am managing, and living my life, but I am not fine.

      Fine is what disabled people tell non-disabled people we are because that’s what they want to hear.

      1. LW*

        I get that. It’s also what I tell people because I don’t want their pity/reminders that my situation is hard. I’m managing. I’m trying to make the best of it and it’s not helpful for someone to be like “OH NO being in a chair must be AWFUL!”

        1. knitter*

          But also not true because a wheelchair provides access. My daughter once she outgrows her stroller she’ll use a wheelchair or walker and used a bumbo attached to wheels for a bit. As her parent, I really appreciate having a tool to easily help her have access to activities. A wheelchair is only “awful” because our society tells people that physical ability is valued and should strived for. That said, her health struggles are incredibly challenging, but in the situation our goal is for her to have access.

        2. ADHSquirrelWhat*

          Also the fact that the /chair/ isn’t what’s awful – it’s the situation. The /chair/ is the thing that lets you keep having a life instead of being bed-bound.

          Sometimes people really do act as though the mobility device itself is the /problem/ and not /the solution/ – the PROBLEM is PEOPLE!

        3. Batgirl*

          One of my students gave a presentation once to the students and faculty about what it was really like to live with his disability. There was practical advice like “Say this, not that” and “This is helpful, this is not” but most of it was a really skilful way of saying “I’m fine and I never invited anyone to a pity party!” He is a natural speaker and a fun person. The overwhelmingly positive mood he created really stuck in my head. It must be exasperating to have to constantly deal with negativity and fear and ignorance when you aren’t any of those things.

  33. Q without U*

    This is eye-opening for me. I am one who has asked, “Are you okay?” or “What happened!?” as a show of concern. It never occurred to me that these questions might be exhausting or intrusive. I will definitely stop.

    This just brings it home that it’s hard to check your privilege when you don’t even recognize what they are. OP, thank you for sharing your experience.

    1. MtnLaurel*

      Ditto. I didn’t realize it until I had to use a cane to get around last fall. Mine was always genuine concern but I didn’t think how exhausting it would be . I’m also stopping unless it’s someone I feel particularly close to.

    2. MsSolo*

      It’s difficult, because if it is a new injury, rather than a long term thing, the person may need more help than usual. I turned up to the office with my arm in a cast and was suddenly confronted with the fact I couldn’t get in because the door mechanism required using both hands at once (handle for the latch and handle on the lock). But that was relatively short term, and it’s much easier to live with questions when you know in a couple of months they’ll be over with.

    3. cmdrspacebabe*

      Personally I don’t always mind getting those when using my cane because I know they’re well-meant, but if it’s not someone I know well enough to be sure it’s NOT chronic, I wouldn’t bother unless they were actually wearing a cast or a bandage or something (and even then low-key, they’ve probably been asked 50 times already). If there’s no visible injury or anything, you can probably just stick to a kindly stated “Hey, how are you doing?” or maybe “Hey, everything okay?” – if they WANT to tell you about it they can dramatically recite their tale of woe, but they can also just say “Yep, doing fine!” and you’ll know not to bother.

    4. Fikly*

      As a disabled person, I never mind “are you ok?” Because that’s expressing actual concern or care!

      I am grateful for the rare times someone asks if I need help, and then respects the answer, be it yes or no. As opposed to the majority of the time, when help is thrust upon me, and sometimes that help endagers my health.

      But asking for any kind of explanation – no, you do not get free access to my health information.

    5. Entry-Level Marcus*

      I feel like this is tricky though. If I got a serious and visible injury, and nobody I worked with asked me about it, I think I’d feel pretty hurt and unseen.

  34. Pam*

    I tend towards cheerful and quick- “I have a disability”, but am willing to occasionally say in a firm tone- “I’m broken. Why do you ask?”

      1. 'Tis Me*

        I use broken regularly!

        Thank you for this thread. As somebody who has been facing up to the fact that an autoimmune condition, two chronic pain conditions, a bad back, and a bit of hypermobility (so e.g. sometimes a knee tries to bend forward or sideways in ways they really shouldn’t and I’m in sudden excruciating agony) probably do add up to “actual disability” level, it’s been helpful to have the reminder that disabilities don’t need to be permanently completely debilitating to “count”… In the last 5 years, I’ve had 2 off on maternity leave. In each of the other 3, I’ve had 60+ days off sick. A quarter of each year. I am really lucky I have an understanding, supportive company. (In fairness when I’m well enough to work I do a good job!)

        And given my manager has also seen me struggling to try to work on with migraines, around HG, with laryngitis, limping on both legs, with brain fog so bad that I fell over trying to recalculate on the fly how to proceed forwards through a door somebody was now holding for me so I didn’t need to pull and hold it open – I dropped the conscious thought “remain upright” so my legs collapsed, etc etc, they know I’m not faking. If I say I can’t work from home they know I mean I basically need to stay in bed.

        But I’m not *constantly* ill/in too much pain to function. On a good day, I have a completely ignorable mild background headache, energy, non-aching limbs, and can function like a person of normal health… I may have last had an actual good day about 18 months ago though… On a typical “about as good as it seems to get atm” day, I can function but by about 8 pm at the latest I am utterly shattered, and I will have had to push past at least one low energy point in the afternoon where staying awake was difficult. My background headache level leaves me super-sensitive to noises, light changes/flashing lights (so if the 5 year old is fidgeting on the top bunk between me and the light it really hurts, or silly annoying videos with discordant music can shut me down to the point I just need to go to bed to sleep the stabbing, crushing ouch off). My limbs basically feel about a week or two out from having had flu (so you can do stuff, but feel sapped of strength and stamina, with low-level aches, and resting frequently is a really good idea)…

        Being pregnant doesn’t help much, and neither do two young children (typically the first thing the doctors’d want to address is my sleep hygiene for instance… “at the whim of small people and hyperemesis” does not make for a sensible routine) – with 3 it’ll be worse…

  35. OtterB*

    If I saw a coworker I didn’t know well in a wheelchair, when they hadn’t been previously, I would be likely to ask something like “What happened?” or “Are you okay?” and in fact think it was kind of rude/oblivious if I didn’t. If someone is offering that kind of distant but sincere concern, I’d suggest a response in passing of something like “It’s temporary” or “It comes and goes.” You don’t owe anyone details about your medical condition, and I get that it’s annoying that you get the same question from a bunch of people, but maybe that’s a preprogrammed response that doesn’t require much from your brain fog and gives the “nothing to see here” vibe that should divert further questions from people who can take a hint.

    1. Person from the Resume*

      Yes! I think the LW framed it fairly well, but some of the commenters seem to think this kind of concern for a friendly acquaintance is rude. If I saw someone limping, on crutches, in a wheelchair all of a sudden I would ask with concern what happened expecting to find out and then offer my condolences on what they’re having to go through at the moment. It would almost seem rude not to ignore such a drastic change in condition.

      I also understand the LW gets asked by a lot of time and rather repeatedly so it’s frustrating and annoying for her. And that the people who keep pressing for details after a quick brush off are rude. But I think taking the attitude that “people are so rude” to ask a simple question is the wrong one.

      Although I think I’d ask “what happened” instead of “what did you do?” which does seem a bit ruder by placing the blame on the LW from the start.

      1. Jen2*

        I agree, the initial question isn’t rude. I think most people are asking out of compassion.

        This seems similar to letters where the LW doesn’t want to discuss a painful situation over and over (death in the family, divorce, etc). In those cases the standard advice seems to be to let a few people know the details and ask them to spread the info and give guidance for how you’d like to be treated. Which seems like it would work with the coworkers in this case.

      2. Blueberry*

        Quoting Fikly below, who said this quite completely:

        “There is a huge difference between “are you ok?” and “What happened?”
        The first expresses concern. The second is all about you. “

    2. Fikly*

      Here’s the thing.

      There is a huge difference between “are you ok?” and “What happened?”

      The first expresses concern. The second is all about you.

      1. Hawk*

        Sometimes people even say “what happened?” or worse, “what did you do?” in a condescending tone. I’m fine if you ask me how I am, even bring up my limp, but don’t ask me like I’m a small kid that skinned my knee.

      2. Batgirl*

        That’s very interesting. I wonder what would happen if the OP pretended they’d said the former instead of the latter.
        “What happened?”
        “I’m OK thanks!”
        But the wheelchair?
        “Yes it’s working out great!”

      3. Persephone Underground*

        I disagree- “what happened?” is very much a natural thing to ask, and generally understood to express concern or even surprise and be equivalent to (and in a longer convo is often followed by) “are you ok?”. People don’t always pick the exact correct words for every situation, so it’s odd to unilaterally decide that one typical phrase used to express concern is ok and another is rude, when in practice they’re often used interchangeably.
        Really, I can see that the repetitiveness is a problem, but it’s still important not to go around treating kind people who genuinely mean well rudely yourself when they haven’t yet done anything to merit it. As expressed by another commentor a bit above here, the initial inquiry is perfectly normal. It’s the follow-up and how they treat any boundaries you express that makes it rude or not. If you snap at people for asking “what happened?” you’ll just teach them not to talk to you (and get a reputation as unapproachable as they tell others about getting snapped at), not teach them that there’s anything wrong with the question.

  36. cmdrspacebabe*

    I get the same kind of comments whenever I use my cane – my disability is very rarely visible and I’m young enough to get weird looks for it. I have actually had that exact same “what did you DO???” interaction before, plus one where the building security guard loudly crowed “Oh, she has a CANE now!!!” when I walked in with it (seriously, what???)

    I use the same basic strategy. Rude or invasive remarks get a curt “Yes, I do have a cane” or “Because I’m disabled”, generally accompanied with some “…seriously?” raised eyebrows. Remarks that are clearly coming from a place of concern from people who haven’t seen the cane before – “Uh oh, you okay?” – get a more cheerful “Just a chronic condition that flares up now and again, nothing to worry about!” and usually that’s enough to back people off… unless they’re either really clueless or really determined to be rude, but there’s not a whole lot to be done about that besides the reaction OP already had, which often ends with them backpedaling uncomfortably if they sense their faux pas and ideally learning their lesson. Let’s not get our hopes up, though…

  37. animaniactoo*

    I suspect that a lot of this is going to die down as people become more *used* to seeing you in the wheelchair occasionally.

    I would go for the shortest answer: I have a disability and when it flares up I can’t walk. I decided to start using the chair for the flare-ups.

    I get you on the brain-fog thing, so honestly – I would practice saying this, with a friend if you can. As far as the rude questions, what you want is not a way to answer each person, but a couple of ways to answer all of them. So: Think about what you would have wanted to say to the person who said “since when?” or “I never noticed anything like that” or other similar comments. Is it “pardon me, I don’t think that’s your business”? or “You know, that sounds really rude and hostile. Why do I need to justify myself to you?” (in the calmest tone of voice possible)? Figure out what you want to say, come up with scripts for them, and see if you can get a friend to help you practice putting them into action – in part, because a friend will be reading off of a different script and may come back at you with stuff you’re not expecting. Which will help you develop responses to that. Including, for brain fog: “I’m in bad shape and can’t keep talking about this right now. Catch me on a good day, I’ll talk to you then.” and moving yourself along.

    1. animaniactoo*

      Alternately, if you don’t want to say you’re in bad shape, you can go with “I’m having a bad day and can’t keep talking about this right now”.

      1. Cloudy with sunny breaks*

        I think I would lead with that. ‘It’s a bad day. I’m using my chair.’ And then continue on.

  38. Yvette*

    I think the LW has gotten some very good advice here, but the one thing that struck me from the letter “My residence hall is also not ADA compliant…” How is that even allowed? Do older buildings get grandfathered in? Does it only apply to public buildings and a residence hall is not considered public? Sorry if that is a simplistic question but I am used to seeing ramps and accessibility modifications everywhere.

    1. LW*

      Older buildings get grandfathered in. But considering I work here and am required to life here, I consider reasonable accommodations to do my job to include making the building navigable for me. Luckily since I wrote the letter I’ve gotten a bit farther with HR and changes have started to be made.

      1. Yvette*

        Good! I hope you get the changes you need. And thank you for response, I was afraid my question/wording was inappropriate or offensive.

    2. ADHSquirrelWhat*

      That’s totally a thing with older buildings. As they get renovated they have to come into compliance /as is possible/ but .. I mean, you can’t really widen doorways once they’re there, or put a bathroom on a floor where there’s no plumbing, or whatever.

      My old college still has buildings where if there’s a disability that makes stairs impossible the registrar will have to move the class, as far as I know. And some retrofits to try and bring a building INTO compliance are .. not actually functional.

      1. ThatGirl*

        Yeah, my high school was built in the 1920s, and when I attended there (second half of the 90s) we had both a teacher and a student using a wheelchair. Sprawling three story building and the first floor was halfway below grade. There were step-ups to most of the bathrooms. There was one elevator, way tucked in a back hallway. The student in question had muscular dystrophy and couldn’t raise his arms high enough to insert the key so he always had to have someone with him to get between floors. It was lousy. Thankfully they did a major renovation in the early ’00s and it’s hugely improved.

      2. Quill*

        I worked for a while in a terrible 60’s era conjoined pair of concrete boxes that got retrofitted into “compliance” meaning that the wheelchair accessible entrance was hidden behind the power box, at which point you had to go down a 2.5 foot wide 40 degree ramp that zigzagged twice, up one ancient elevator, through a 3 foot wide hallway that was constantly clogged with delivery boxes, and up a second ancient elevator, because the top floor of the building didn’t have a public hallway that connected across both building masses.

        Assuming you could get *in* in a wheelchair, your best bet for escaping a fire was crashing out through a window, because it used to take me eight minutes to wheel a dolly through that gauntlet.

      3. Civil discourse*

        Oh my gosh. My ortho actually told me “if you had done this 30 years earlier we would have amputated your leg”. Sometimes I wish he had…instead of being slow overweight and low stamina (and just looking lazy) it would have been more obvious that there’s a reason I can’t walk or stand for long periods

    3. Llellayena*

      Buildings constructed before ADA regulations are grandfathered in to an extent. Certain levels of public building must be updated as much as feasible, but most building aren’t required to update until they do a certain level of renovations (not for repainting or replacing the exterior finish, but if you start moving walls or putting an addition on…). Many school dormitories are pre-ADA, so schools won’t spend the (public!) money until they absolutely have to.

      1. Hmmm*

        As far as I know (not a lawyer, but I’m an architect who works with college residential facilities) your institution needs to accommodate you. If your needs changed vs. when you first moved in, renovations need to be made or you need to be moved. It sounds like you are working on this already but you may want to escalate your requests to someone else if they are not being answered in a reasonable amount of time.

        1. Llellayena*

          Yes, the “needs to accommodate” is the “absolutely have to” of spending public money. But for bigger accommodations that require extensive renovations, it’ll take a while for it to happen. (I’m an architect who does not work on colleges, so you probably have more info than me on just how long that process can take)

      2. Zephy*

        My sister attended a college where the building they used for the women’s dormitory was a hotel in the 19th century, so built for rich people a century before anyone knew what “accessibility” was. I also toured this college during my own search, and I recall that on the tour my group encountered a set of stairs in a hallway. The college had helpfully provided a piece of plywood–covered with carpet to match the hall floor–to lay over the stairs for a wheelchair user.

        1. ADHSquirrelWhat*

          oh dear gods. That kind of “help” DOESN’T HELP!

          you’d need someone with you every time to move the piece of plywood! which is probably unwieldy as all get-out and annoying, AND if the stairs have any grade to them at all going across in a chair would be REALLY hard in one direction and WAY TOO FAST in the other!

          I’m shuddering just thinking about it!

        2. Quill*

          I think there’s a “that’s not a ramp” space on an accessability done wrong bingo card I saw floating around twitter.

    4. Zephy*

      Historic buildings are also often exempt from ADA compliance, usually because it would be prohibitively expensive to make the building fully accessible and maintain the historic quality of the building that got it dedicated as such in the first place. College campuses are really bad about this – my alma mater was established over a century ago, so the oldest and most iconic buildings on campus are (1) not going anywhere anytime soon, and (2) usually not ADA compliant. The iconic building that appears on all of the marketing materials, for instance, has one ramp leading to a rear entrance, and that’s it. It’s a 3-story building, so people who use wheelchairs or otherwise can’t do stairs are confined to the first floor. The library, also iconic, has an ugly, ungainly concrete ramp structure tacked onto the side, and promotional pictures of it are framed or cropped so as to leave it out.

    5. Quill*

      If it was built before ADA compliance was mandatory, it was automatically grandfathered in.

      Private residences, iirc, don’t need to be ADA compliant but a residence hall is more along the lines of an apartment building than a private residence.

  39. Llellayena*

    What about this as a short script: I have a disability (or long term condition) where the effects of it varies day by day. Some days I need more accommodations than others. Today, I need a wheelchair.

    The second and third sentences are optional and can be used when people still look clueless after the first sentence. It doesn’t get into what you have (which is none of their business) but does give them a “why I look different today” explanation that they can wrap their brain about (which is also none of their business but is helpful for ease of interaction).

    For people who already know you have a disability, but not the details of it, you can also use “Having a bad day in a normal life.” Said cheerfully, this should indicate “I’m used to this, I’m handling it like I normally would.”

    Oh and for those people who get right in your face. Start with “please step back and talk to me like a normal person (or: like you normally would), thanks.” before responding at all to what they’re actually asking. There’s no excuse for that behavior.

    For the ADA compliance thing: Cite the ADA “reasonable accommodation” as often as possible and ask for a specific list of things that would be reasonable. Automatic door buttons are reasonable and easy to install (my church did this recently), ramps are possible but take much more time to construct so think temporary and then permanent, an elevator tower on a building that was never designed for it likely won’t happen for several years at least (not because it’s not possible but because of the cost and design and construction time). Be specific in what will work for you both temporarily (like a month or two) and permanently. Also approach it not just with HR but with the school as improving accommodations for anyone on the grounds. They may get a student who needs these accommodations at some point, thinking about it long term is to their benefit.

    1. LW*

      Omg I keep mentioning that last part—think of all the students we are missing out on bc they can’t live here!!!

  40. ADHSquirrelWhat*

    A possibility – does your wheelchair look personalized, or does it look like you just unboxed it and sat down?

    If the chair is decorated in whatever your usual style is, it looks like /yours/ – if it’s industrial, it looks like you’re just in there until you get an all-clear and can give it back to the hospital.

    Which is not to say that people being idiots is okay! But if the goal is to get people to just shove off … pimp your ride!

    (I use a cane sometimes, and even the difference between one that’s plain and one that’s happy and colorful makes a difference. The colorful one is clearly CHOSEN – the plain one is stuck-with)

  41. busybee*

    Ooooh I feel this, the same thing happened when I started using a cane. I’m 23 so most people assume I’ve been injured somehow, rather than needing the cane for a chronic disability. What usually works for me is a polite but firm “I only discuss my health with my doctor.” When people push me on things like “oh but when will you feel better,” a cheerful “I feel better now that I can actually get around without pain” tends to pull them up short. Non-disabled people see mobility devices as markers of injury, pain, and weakness–they don’t always understand that to us disabled folks, a mobility device usually grants us a lot more freedom than we had before!
    OP, good luck and congrats on finding a solution that works for your body!

    1. ADHSquirrelWhat*

      I had to explain that to my son! “But Mom, the cane makes you look like an old woman!”

      “I’d rather LOOK like an old woman than FEEL like an old woman! This way I don’t hurt!”

      Ever since then, he’s careful to make sure he knows where my cane is if I need it, because that makes perfect sense to him!

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Appropos of nothing… for my nephew’s wedding, my sisterinlaw COVERED her cane with faceted crystals in the bride’s colors. It was a thing of beauty.

        1. ADHSquirrelWhat*

          I see it like getting fancy eyeglasses.

          NO ONE thinks twice about getting /nice/ frames for glasses, because enough people wear them that they’re everyday normal. OF COURSE you want them to flatter you and look good!

          well – why not your cane? Your walker/wheelchair/crutches? Live it up!

  42. VermiciousKnid*

    Try “A health thing flared up,” in a dismissive tone and with a wave of your hand, especially when you’re passing someone in the hallway and don’t have time to stop and chat. Sound like you’re way too bored to go into it and they should already know what you’re talking about. If they ask any follow up questions, say “I’m doing good, thanks!” and wheel away, regardless of the question.
    The key is acting like “this is so normal and boring and why on earth are you even wasting your time asking me about it?” Practice in the mirror until you can say these things automatically with the utmost confidence and flippancy. Most people will follow your lead (an extension of “if you act like you know what you’re doing, people don’t question you”). The ones that get aggressive with follow up questions will choke on the dust kicked up by your escape.
    Glad you got a chair and it’s helping you get around!

    1. anna green*

      I think this is good too. Saying “a health thing flared up” or “A chronic condition flared up” or “A disability flared up” all help those who are really concerned know that something horrible didn’t just happen, and should make them stop. Anyone who pushes for more info is asking for too much and deserves a none of your business type answer.

      1. Elliott Smith Song*

        I might even say it like “I have a health thing that sometimes flares up” in the present tense so that people are aware that it is something that could very likely happen again in the future and understand that flare ups can occur occasionally (or regularly depending on the LW’s experience) and it is not something for anyone to be super alarmed about. I think that if a nosy person who doesn’t know the LW very well gets the impression that the flare up is out of the ordinary they might be more likely to ask more questions like “what triggered it?” “how often does this happen?” I could also imagine the same type of people making all sorts of ridiculous suggestions like “have you tried CBD oil?”
        People have different motivations for their nosiness but something that I learned when my mom spoke to me about encountering nosy/judgmental people when she had breast cancer is that people really really project their own fears of illness and disability onto people with disabilities. Often they specifically want to know the “cause” of the disability or illness so that they can reassure themselves that they won’t develop it themselves. I could definitely see this happening with Dysautonomia because it is a chronic condition.

        1. VermiciousKnid*

          I like your thinking about the present tense! Maybe even “My health thing is flaring up.”

          I was trying to come up with verbiage that wouldn’t require further explanation. “My health thing” is vague enough that no real information is given, but offers enough that most ~reasonable~ people would know not to ask more. It would also stop people from asking over and over again. They’d be like, “oh yeah, OP has that health thing.” They don’t need to know exactly what that thing is to move on with their day.

  43. san junipero*

    I never expected to see someone else with dysautonomia here! I haven’t had to use a cane in quite some time, luckily, but I sympathize. I also have a friend with EDS who is in your same position with the wheelchair. One thing that I think has helped her is that her existing social circle often acts as a buffer. For example, she was in the chair when we first met, and when I asked if she could navigate the steps at our next social gathering, a mutual friend explained the situation and that was that. Do you have people like that at work who could sort of generally spread the word around to those who you’re less acquainted with?

    Alternatively, I support just keeping it brief. When challenged on the cane, I used to say, “I’m fine, I just sometimes need to use this because of a health issue.” If they pressed (like the guy who said I was “too young for a cane,” oy), I’d just reply something like “Apparently not!” and end the conversation. And I think it’s totally fine to just say “Yes” when someone passing asks if you’re okay.

  44. Curious Sciurus*

    This can be a really tricky thing, and I’m sorry you’re going through this.

    I have a neurological disorder that sometimes has physically visible symptoms, and while of course some people can be rude as all get out, I’ve found what works best is providing people with (1) a way to categorise the situation and (2) an obvious indication of how I want this conversation to go.

    Them: “omg, your arm is in a sling, what happened, are you okay?!?!?!”
    Me: “I have nerve damage. I’m totally fine — this happens sometimes! How’s [work thing] going?”

    I think most people in a professional setting are trying to be nice (or at least aren’t actively trying to be mean), they just don’t have a script for the situation. I try to give them a script.

  45. DuskPunkZebra*

    Ugh, I’m sorry you’re dealing with this! I have a similar issue and I’ve been super tempted to get a wheelchair on occasion except for things like this that ambulatory wheelchair users get. And the things that the non-disabled in the comments may not really understand is that the public seem to think that your health becomes public business the second your issues become visible or you use a disabled resource when you’re invisibly disabled. It’s a bit like the crap pregnant women get – people seem to lose all sense of reasonable boundaries.

    I do some odd things – like wearing corsets as back braces – that do end up with questions from my coworkers. In my case, I’m not really shy about sharing info about my condition, and I do it when I’m feeling well so that, when I have a bad day, I already have informational grounds to start from. So if someone asks then, I can just say “my back is acting up today, but this is helping. Thanks for asking/thanks for the concern/I’ll let you know if I need your help.” So maybe the quick response is something like “It’s a bad pain day, so I’m rolling today” or responding to ‘what did you do’ is “had a run-in with some bad genetics and today I lost.” Since you also live there, I think you’ve got room to quip a little more and have some humor about it.

    As for someone like your coworker that really sounds like she invaded your space, I think it’s entirely reasonable to raise an eyebrow and ask “You do realize that’s a pretty personal question, right?” It’s pretty common to ask after someone’s health in social situations, but it doesn’t really take into account the minefield that question is when someone’s health is complicated. If they get pushy, I wouldn’t feel bad at all to respond “That’s really personal and I’m not going to get into my private health information. I’m in a wheelchair today, I need it, and that’s all you need to know.”

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      That triggered something from many years ago… in one of those conversation lulls at a party I overheard an acquaintance say “I lost the genetic lottery, that’s all. Can I get you a beer?”

  46. I'm A Little Teapot*

    At some point, it’s perfectly ok to respond to rudeness with “Wow, rude much?” and a stare down or just wheeling/walking away. Or similar. Obviously, not every single interaction will need this approach.

  47. Lady Russell's Turban*

    Being more open and matter of fact about your disability in general may gain you more privacy–and compassion–in the long run. If people know in advance that you have X condition and that it causes symptoms that can flare up, they don’t need to do anything more than to ask you if they can do anything for you. You may feel like you don’t want or need to educate people about condition X, but telling some people now may well lessen the need to tell more people in the future. People talk and Cindy, who doesn’t know you well, may say to Jane, “What’s up with OP?’ Jane can say, “She has X, which means when it flares up she can’t walk and it makes her foggy.”

    I have not had to experience having a disability myself but I have observed my incredible friend do this. She doesn’t get into the more intimate gory details of her condition with people, but she very directly addresses the more visible or urgent ones openly. This lets people know that her disability is just another aspect of the human condition, let’s them know what she might need and what they can expect from her, and allows them to educate themselves further if they want to. I have had other people ask me about her and I have told them what I have heard her tell others.

  48. Lauren*

    Why tell them the truth, they don’t really want to know the truth.
    – I fought with a squirrel and lost! Got to roll – later!

    1. OtterB*

      This is all your fault. :-) I now have an earworm of “I fought the squirrel and the squirrel won.”

  49. Crutches*

    I’d go with “I have a disability that’s different day to day.” Describe the chronic nature of the condition as well as the fluctuation of its visible effects in one go — if you feel you have to describe anything at all. I think maybe people default to viewing disability as static, but they have room for understanding chronic things with peaks and valleys.

    I’ve always wished I had the nerve to ask “Do I know you?” to strangers or very distant acquaintances who asked about my crutches*. If you’re asking why my body looks or works the way it does, you’d better be someone whose name and face I know, at least. People’s questions can get really personal, even if it’s about a subject that’s obviously physically uncomfortable like I assume dysautonomia is.

    * Recurring injury. It turns out that, if you damage a joint enough, it’ll just turn into crap that gets re-injured easily. I also have a questionable EDS/benign joint hypermobility dx.

    1. Poppy the Flower*

      “ I’ve always wished I had the nerve to ask “Do I know you?” to strangers or very distant acquaintances who asked about my crutches*.“ This! I’m pretty private but also decently open with people I know better and are curious. But when it’s a stranger and it goes beyond “are you okay?” I start feeling like they aren’t actually interested in me as a person, just being nosy or having their curiosity satisfied or whatever. I’m not just my disability!

  50. Laura H.*

    Not helpful at all but would prolly flip through my head if the circumstance arose: roll over their feet. (Not serious, I just know I’d think of that if I were to encounter a jerk)

    More helpful answer: you don’t have to explain- and if you want to you could use something like “I just need extra help sometimes and this wheelchair helps me do that.” (I generally use this type of wording for littles who are generally naturally asky about this type of thing- tone and wording adjustable as needed.) But the key thing is your want to share or not. No one has any obligation to explain any changing ability to anyone if they don’t want to.

    Also just a general PSA that I feel I need to say: assistive devices are generally an extension of the person- in the sense that my walker is like my legs, do not take it away from me or touch it without my permission.

    Roll on OP!

  51. The Cardinal*

    “Thanks for asking. It’s a chronic thing, some days are better than others, and I really don’t want to discuss the details.”

  52. Another Millenial*

    Put a big ol’ sign on your chair: “Yes, I’m okay; No, I don’t want to talk about it.”

  53. SierraSkiing*

    I’ve been recovering from a fairly visible and severe injury for the last several months, and it only took a month to start getting irritated at the (well-meaning but repetitive) questions about and comments on my changes in mobility from day to day. I found it helped to have a quick/vague script to reassure people that the sky was not falling, and then to move on the conversation if they seemed stuck.

    Coworker: “How’s it going?/Looks like you’re moving around more!/I thought you were done using a cane?”
    Me: “Getting better by the day!/It is what it is / Nothing to worry about. How was (change of subject)?”
    Coworker: “So did they figure out…[Insert detailed question about my medical history here]”
    Me: *cheerful but exhausted tone* “Oh, it’s pretty complicated and boring. I spend too much time talking about this stuff with doctors anyway, I’d much rather hear about [subject change].”

    Even pretty oblivious people usually pick up on the second subject change.

    1. SierraSkiing*

      Oh, and since one of your problems is people passing you in the hall asking if you’re okay- a script like, “Doing okay, just a flare-up!” might work. I think that conveys “chronic medical issue, no need for alarm.” I’ve needed a similar script for the hallway “Are you okays?”. Mine has generally been “Getting better by the day!” People seem to really need to be reassured that The World Is Okay and they can move on.

    2. Decima Dewey*

      “Did they figure out….?” can be ableist. It assumes that once someone figures out what’s wrong, they’ll have a solution and everything will be hunkydory. Not the way medical conditions work. Sometimes learning you have X just means you have a name for what’s wrong and there’s nothing to be done (at least no right now).

      I forget who said it, but a disability activist pointed out that, when it comes to medical advances, it amounts to living longer or better (or both) with the disability, not with getting rid of the disability altogether.

  54. CouldntPickAUsername*

    Honestly I think maybe being proactive about it is best. Say to people “I have a condition, sometimes you’ll see me use a wheelchair, I don’t want to discuss it further” and then that would also grant you some more leeway on the chair days where you can go “mind yo business”

  55. RC Rascal*

    Here is my suggestion for people who inquire about the wheelchair:

    “I’m not feeling well right now and need a little extra assistance.”

    It’s short, simple, and true.

    1. morning glory*

      I think OP’s typical response does a much better job of preventing followup questions or rude comments than this does.

    2. SarahTheEntwife*

      That really depends on what kind of assistance the LW needs and whether she wants it from random semi-strangers. I think it would lead to way more questions and problems than it avoids.

  56. Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves*

    People can be awful and nosy sometimes. Due to the way I carry my (normal) weight, I get asked once in a while if I’m pregnant. I never have been pregnant and never will be. Since these are clients I just respond, “I’m not” when they ask if I’m pregnant or when I’m due. Some go as far as to protest this (!) and for them I get a little snarky and say, “I’m not pregnant, just fat,” which shames most of them out of saying more.
    I imagine the people rude and bold enough to ask a woman if she’s pregnant and certainly only looks a few months so are the same ones who press you on your wheelchair use. I try to feel bad for them for being raised by parents who never taught them how to interact with other humans in a basically polite manner.

    1. Me*

      “I’m not pregnant, just fat” I lol’d because I say this. But it’s the first thing out of my mouth. What can I say I like watchign people who make me uncomfortable squirm a bit : )

      Also for general comments on my appearance – You look (tired, sick, sad, mad, etc) gets a “It’s just my face.”

    2. K*

      How annoying! There are also those who will ask an actually-pregnant woman if she’s sure she’s really pregnant, because she doesn’t look it. I had a very small bump with my first child and got a remarkable amount of commentary on it, most of which was really weird, and some of which was borderline alarming (“Is the baby… OK?” Yes, he was fine, eventually born at term and average weight.) My favourite was the lady who said “Oh, you’ve had the baby – where is he?” when I was a week overdue and he was still very much camping in my uterus.

      These days I walk oddly sometimes because of intermittent pain caused by connective tissue issues plus sciatica, so I can sympathise with the “You weren’t limping like that yesterday,” comments too. I usually say “Maybe tomorrow’ll be a better day,” and change the subject. But I don’t really feel the need to educate anyone.

    3. 'Tis Me*

      And conversely when women carry “big” they get “are you sure it’s not twins”, “you must be ready to pop any time now”/”are you sure you have your dates right?” crud. (I spent a decent amount of time last year reminding a friend that if her midwives and doctors are happy, the scans look good, etc, people carry differently, and you can’t tell much by just looking at somebody – it was a higher risk first pregnancy so she really didn’t need the stress! She now has a happy, healthy, gorgeous bubster.)

  57. Liz*

    “Why are you asking that?” followed (if necessary) by “Maybe I wasn’t clear. Why do you think it’s appropriate for you to ask that?”

  58. Hats Are Great*

    My disabled child has chosen to give a short introduction to his disability at the beginning of the school year. He tells his classmates, in his own words, about his disability, what about him is different because of it, and how they can accommodate him, and what things are more annoying than helpful. We were really hesitant when he was in 3rd grade and announced he wanted to do this because he was tired of answering random questions and thought it would be easier just to explain once, but we let him go ahead, and it’s actually worked out really well! Now that he’s older, he just talks to his homeroom, and it sort-of naturally filters out to the rest of the school population, and it’s cut the annoying questions he deals with by about 90%, while creating an environment where his peers are a lot more aware of when assistance might be welcome and when they would just be being dicks.

    I have seen things sort-of similar done in workplaces, usually with a new hire or a recent diagnosis, where HR sends out a blast saying “Hey here’s our new person or an announcement from a long-time employee” and the person talks about their disability in their own words. I don’t know if that would be something you’d be comfortable with, or if it would be appropriate given the structure of your workplace, but it’s an option.

    Another similar option would be to contact the student newspaper (or whatever media at the school is widely read) and give an interview to them about yourself, including your dysautonomia. Student newspapers are always doing profiles of staff, and you could maybe even frame it around some upcoming inclusion or awareness event. You could talk about how you’re particularly aware of the access needs of disabled students because you deal with it yourself! etc. That would get your story widely disseminated once, and it would filter down to new students and employees for several years.

    You are obviously not obligated to talk to ANY Nosy Neds about ANY of your health stuff if you don’t want to and just telling them it’s a rude question is a totally legitimate choice! And I definitely don’t want to suggest these are the right or best choices, and they are definitely only even in the ballpark of “maybe” choices for a small subset of people who are comfortable with this approach. (It would definitely not be my choice, I’m a very private person about health stuff! But I’m glad we let my child choose it despite our misgivings; he’s been very happy with the outcome, and we’ve been happy with it, and we’re proud of him for thinking of it and doing it!) But I wanted to put it out there as an option that some people choose to pursue.

    1. Contracts Killer*

      From parent to parent, you are raising a great child! What a wonderful, brave thing for him to do! Being proactive instead of reactive is a skill that even some grownups don’t have and your little man was doing it by third grade.

  59. Andrea*

    Do you any sort of introductory meeting with your students? If so, I would address it there, briefly and matter-a-factually. Something along the lines of your last line would be perfect. I think it IS important for the students you work with to be aware that they may see you in different situations, but you don’t owe anyone a long explanation about your personal health.

  60. Zebra*

    I have DX under the same umbrella as yours, OP and am also a part time/ambulatory wheelchair user. I’m open about my conditions with those I’m close with, so thy get it, but others that ask get a short answer.

    “I have a disability that necessitates that I use my chair sometimes.”

  61. I am an Owl*

    I worked in a company with lots of boundary issues when I was first out of college. I was talking to my Mother about all the personal questions. She told me that I had learned that I don’t have to say everything I thought and it was time to learn I don’t need to answer every question asked. In that job I would be very blunt and say ” I am so glad I finally learned I don’t need to answer every question asked of me”. By the time they figured out what I meant I was long gone.

    Later in less dysfunctional places I answered with the “Why do you ask”. If it seemed valid I might answer more fully but often I would just say “Huh…”. If they were a little aware that was the end of it, but if not it usually left them uncomfortable for reasons they didn’t understand.

    Occasionally it would require a “I don’t really think this is something I need to discuss with you. See you later”

    Good luck and I hope accommodations show up shortly.

  62. Bri*

    I also have dysautonomia and I would go with my body has to work super hard for normal functions and on bad days I need to let my body focus on other tasks. You don’t owe anyone an explanation but I am a very open book.

  63. Havarti*

    In my experience, people (particularly able-bodied ones) have a really hard time wrapping their mind around a couple things:
    1. People have chronic conditions that will never magically get better – this is not a one-time injury that lays you up for a while and then you’re fine
    2. People with chronic conditions can have good days where the accommodations they need are minimal and bad days where they need to use things like wheelchairs or not leave the house at all and there is no set schedule for which kind of day you’ll have
    There’s a tendency for a very black & white view of disabilities where you’re disabled 100% of the time or you’re not disabled at all. No shades of gray there, 50 or otherwise.

    To answer your questions:
    I think the way you have been responding is fine. For the rude ones – you can never escape them but you have this internet stranger’s person to “return awkwardness to sender” and tell them to mind their own beeswax. You’re not wrong for getting annoyed. It’s exhausting to deal with a chronic problem PLUS nosy, rude people.

    Regarding ADA compliance and HR, I don’t know how far you’ve gotten or how receptive they’ve been. I’m sure you know what sort of things you need to make moving around in a wheelchair possible. As a residence hall (versus a rented house near campus), it seems like they should be ADA compliant by default. Have you checked local laws and policies of school and state? Are there easy fixes that can be implemented immediately? Are there other people who also use wheelchairs that you could band together with?

    1. Amethystmoon*

      Yeah, unfortunately, we live in a society in which people are weird and also sometimes rude about other people’s bodies. This goes for many things including but not always related to disabilities. OP is definitely fine to be annoyed, although depending on where you work, you may need to mitigate this when dealing with people. I work in a place where fake niceness is not only encouraged, but people get “talked to” if they’re not super polite to everyone. The circumstances don’t seem to be taken into account, either. You’re just expected to pretend and fake your emotions. And we don’t even deal with the general public, except on phones.

    2. ADHSquirrelWhat*

      Don’t forget the corollary that seems to go along with this – For a LOT of people, chronic conditions means you’re not “right with God/dess/spirits/positive thinking/clean living/magic polka”

      And if you just got THEIR religion/system/sacred snotweasel you’d be FINE!

      Which means anyone with a chronic condition can be blamed for their own condition and safely ignored, and the person doing the holier-than-thou routine is safe from ever getting the disability cooties.

      I’ve run into this problem a LOT with the people that seem to think they have a right to what happened/how/why – they want proof they’re “safe”. That it’s “your fault” and they can judge.

      Oh, and having a disability also means you’re dumb as a post. Because a back problem clearly means brain damage? … yeah not so much.

      1. Greta*

        Brain damage doesn’t necessary make someone dumb or intellectually disabled, either. Part of my brain was damaged in a car crash when I was in utero (the guy driving behind my mom wasn’t paying attention and crashed into her car) but the rest of my brain functions great. My IQ is 120, which is significantly above average. The part of my brain that was injured affects spatial orientation, which means I will never be able to drive safely. However, the part of my brain that is necessary for verbal communication and academics is fully functioning.

    3. SarahTheEntwife*

      Unfortunately, if the hall was built before the ADA was passed, it doesn’t have to be compliant until/unless it gets renovated (unless there’s a stricter state law or something involved). Older colleges are frequently *terrible* for accessibility.

  64. 4Sina*

    Every person who asks, if they really want to help, can and should push the school to bring the building up to ADA compliancy. Your health is your own business and you don’t need to be a teacher to every person who asks, but if it ever comes up, “I have need to use my chair from time to time, which can be difficult because this building is not ADA accessible.” Hopefully some changes that will universally benefit will be made, but I am sorry you have to field these questions and I am outraged that it should not be your crusade to educate when you’re just trying to do your job.

  65. L*

    I have a few friends who have dysautonomia/POTS to the point where I think it’s less a super rare condition and more a super rarely DIAGNOSED condition. (Especially since all of those friends are women or dfab and, well, we all know what that means for trying to get diagnosed and helped.)

    Anyway. There’s a lot of good comments here already, especially since you can’t always take the semi-rude way out being that you live in your work space.

      1. L*

        Yep, I just wrote it the way I did because these particular friends use “dysautonomia” and “POTS” to describe themselves and it wasn’t useful to write out every piece. I didn’t mean it like “..who have dysautonomia (POTS)” but more like “this particular subset.”

        And for each one of them it took a LOT to diagnose, including but not limited to: having to travel to another city several hours away for the closest tilt table, being given the runaround “it’s just anxiety” for years, et cetera.

    1. Quill*

      I was recently reading about how it’s possible that afab people are more likely to have neuromuscular and immune system diseases due to estrogen overactivating the immune system, which might mean that those are underreported conditions.

      But also I’ve noticed with my own physical and mental health stuff that you suddenly know more people who share your diagnosis after you get it – either you can be more open with each other or you gravitate towards certain groups and locations.

  66. LizB*

    I’m sorry you’re dealing with this, LW.

    When I was living in the dorms in college there were many, many opportunities to do get-to-know-you activities — certainly at the beginning of the school year, but sometimes throughout the year, as well. If you’re comfortable, and one of those opportunities arises, can you have one of your “fun/important facts about me” be “I have a chronic illness and sometimes use a wheelchair, so don’t be surprised if you see me on wheels every once in a while!”? Or if there’s a “get to know your residence staff!” bulletin board, perhaps you can list a similar thing on your bio there? Ideally, I think this would accomplish your goal of letting students know what’s up en masse in a simple, educational way, and it might reach some of your well-meaning coworkers too. It may not help with the actual rude people, sadly, but could reduce the one-off “Are you okay?”s.

  67. Joielle*

    All my sympathy, OP. My husband also has dysautonomia that flares up sometimes, and like you, he has days where he’s completely fine and days where he’s in a ton of pain. Although his isn’t mobility-related (it’s gastrointestinal, which sucks in a different way), he does field a lot of questions, but he usually just calls it “a flare-up of a chronic illness.” That seems to reassure people that it’s not unusual (for him, anyways) or contagious and he’s not actively dying or anything.

    Sometimes people press for more information, and an explanation that’s both vague and technical is what works for him. Something like “It’s a rare chronic illness that’s actually an intermittent dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system – so it’s both unusual and sort of esoteric, and there’s a lot of trial and error, but I’m working with a specialist who’s been really helpful.” That usually shuts down the “have you tried yoga” crowd… I think partially because people don’t really understand the explanation, which is fine – it’s complicated!

    Anyone who presses past that just gets “Thanks, but I’m honestly so tired of talking about it right now, how’s that [subject change]?”

    He’s more accommodating than I personally think is necessary, but I think it helps that if he’s actively having a bad flare-up, he’s not out in public, because he’s either throwing up 15 times a day, in excruciating pain, or both. So he only gets questions when he’s in a better headspace to deal with them. Internet hugs to you if welcome, chronic illness sucks.

  68. MaureenSmith*

    My best friend also had a rare chronic disease that flared up at times. She attended university & lived in residence with support. (Carleton U in Ottawa, Canada is AMAZING if you have a disability) On good days she could walk, on bad days she stayed in her power chair. Since she was in electrical engineering, she had a key switch installed to prevent her fellow students from ‘improving’ her chair when she parked it to attend class.

    The first time she turned up on campus with the chair, the response was “OMG, what happened to you?!?!?” Her response was that it was a) much faster to get around and b) would stop her habit of sleeping on friends in class. Generally positive & upbeat & would go on and on about how the chair improved her life and energy levels. That stopped most of the questions quickly. Then she painted it, added streamers & there were discussions about a loud car horn and lights…

    Make your chair YOURS. As people get used to seeing you in and out of it, the questions will die down. You can also use any bling as a redirect to turn “but WHY are you in a chair?” to “My body is stupid some days and needs it. What do you think of my new racing stripe?”

    1. ADHSquirrelWhat*

      I keep getting stuck on “a key so the EE students didn’t make it “better”” … I went to an engineering college, and I’m shuddering at all the things I can imagine being done!

  69. SbuxAddict*

    As an amputee, I am up on my prosthetic most of the time but sometimes I’m in my chair. If I get a blister, I’m in it until that heals. Some days I’m in it because the weather is causing an uptick in phantom sensation and the prosthetic is irritating. I relate to what you’re going through – every time I’m in it, I get asked what happened, are you ok, etc. It feels like my chair is suddenly this big elephant in the room and they have to ask about it.

    I honestly do exactly what you do – I roll past with a brisk “Yep, I’m good!” or I stop to explain depending on my mood and time. I hate it. I’m reading here to see what other options people have. At times it takes all my self-control to not tell them to leave it alone, I don’t want to be prayed over, cried over, or singled out. It’s not ok.

    I don’t have any wise advice as I handle it mostly as you do. I try to educate when I’m up for it but one thing I took from rehab was to not expend energy I don’t have trying to make other people more comfortable. It’s hard for me to stick to that but when I do, I feel better both mentally and physically.

    You aren’t alone in this and I’m reading along to see if anyone else here has a good script I can use too.

    1. Me*

      I’m sorry people suck.

      I have, not remotely the same thing, but a chronic mental health issue that currently has me in the doctors every week. There is an individual at work who asks way way inappropriate questions couched as concern, but in actuality is just nosy. Knowing he would ask gave me time to prepare.

      My response was a “Oh no I don’t discuss my medical issues.” Tone was light but also pointed. He backtracked and I surprisingly haven’t heard him asking anyone about their business again.

      So you know, there’s nothing wrong with a simple, I don’t discuss my private stuff. How people chose to take what you say is on them. They’re rude for even asking and you owe them nothing.

      1. SbuxAddict*

        I like that response and I’m stealing it. My work is client-oriented so I see a lot of people who give me their personal information so I’ve always felt weird being private about my own. But your response is neutral enough that I think it won’t be offensive. Thank you!

        This is relatively new to me and I never realized how much a person disappears in society when they go into a wheelchair. All of a sudden it’s about how the chair can get around and function as if it’s the entire person. It’s such a weird sensation.

        1. Me*

          Oh I’m glad I offered somethign that seems useful!

          I will also add be prepared that they will probably feel real dumb right away and stammer about what they didn’t mean and just care blah blah. I had to prepare to avoid the “It’s ok” urge. I just wait until they stop, smile politely, and ask them a neutral work related question.

  70. That's the Ticket*

    Is it appropriate to express sympathy and then ” Is there anything I can do to make this easier for you?” or should you just assume they have it handled?

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      That’s much more appropriate than asking about what happened! I might adjust your wording slightly to say “Is there anything I can do to help you out?” rather than saying make this easier, but that’s a minor tweak.

    2. Laura H.*

      I have this problem with interactions other people using assistive devices!

      I know what and when I would ask for myself, but I don’t know about my friends who also use devices. I always err on the side of asking because I don’t know and I’d rather be a jerk for asking than assume they have it handled and then find out that they really could have used extra help. And I usually tell them so.

      The big thing is don’t be invasive or obnoxious about it and talk at their level (don’t assume incapability or that there’s diminished intelligence) talk to me like you would any other adult- if I need clarification and or a specific type of help- I’ll ask and make it clear.

    3. Anonny*

      Caveat that I’m speaking as someone with a chronic condition, not a temporary injury. Unless someone is visibly struggling to do something (which is NOT the same thing as “they are doing something in a way that looks different than I’m used to”) , directly asks you for help, or you know them reasonably well, please, please, do not say anything. It’s exhausting and alienating and can ruin an otherwise good day in seconds.

      Honestly the fastest way to irreversibly piss me off is to (1) demand to know “what’s wrong with me” or (2) offer me help when I don’t need it. Believe me, I have a lifetime of experience knowing what I can do and I will ask for help if I do need it (which is exceedingly rare). And I suspect that is true for many other people with ability differences as well.

    4. san junipero*

      I’d say err on the side of caution unless they’re CLEARLY struggling. I’d find it annoying and patronizing 99% of the time.

    5. ADHSquirrelWhat*

      I’d say go with how you’d ask anyone if they need help – if you see someone struggling with a stack of papers trying to escape, you’d offer, right? That level of “if they look like they need it”.

      You see me walking by with my cane, I’ve probably got it. You see me with my cane, a bag on the ground, tears in my eyes? Offer to help! So common sense, with the understanding that the mobility aid /in itself/ does not require intervention.

    6. Seeking Second Childhood*

      After my foot surgery*, I really appreciated someone at work who welcomed me back and said “Give a holler if you need a hand, or to have me bring lunch back for you when I go” ….and then went back to talking about our project.
      I’ve tried to do the same ever since.
      *extremely minor & temporary & healed

  71. Me*

    Just an added comment for those who are trying to paint the askers as not rude/just curious.

    Regardless of intent, asking someone what is wrong with them is always rude. It just is. Intent doesn’t excuse how it makes the person on the receiving end feel and pretty clearly the OP does not like it.

    If there is concern, it’s polite to ask how someone is today or something along those lines.

    Just because the asker isn’t trying to be rude, doesn’t mean they aren’t.

    Similar questions – are you pregnant, getting married, having children etc. It’s just not ok.

    1. Kella*

      UGH, asking if you’re pregnant. I hate that. My disability got bad in 2014 and I stopped being able to exercise. I gained some weight and because I have a tilted pelvis, it was particularly visible on my stomach. I had four people ask me if I was pregnant. I never came up with the right thing to say in response. I think my best tactic was to play dumb when someone asked “So when are you due?” and I was just like “Due? for what?”

      1. 'Tis Me*

        One of my colleagues has health issues that meant she (a) lost a bunch of weight and went from having a slim-muscular build to very thin and (b) sometimes has minor abdominal bloating which is more obvious because the rest of her is so tiny. I was very glad that, rather than asking her directly Asking somebody if they’re pregnant/about their family planning plans is rarely not going to be awkward:
        Asking somebody about their family plans/pregnancy status is rarely not going to be awkward:

        They might not want children and may not want to discuss it
        They might be trying and struggling with fertility issues
        They may be dealing with a miscarriage
        They may just be carrying weight like that/suffering from a health issue causing some abdominal bloating
        They might be pregnant but not ready to announce it publicly
        It may just be none of your business…
        If you’re planning on following up on a “yes” with comments on their body – just don’t. Nobody wants the be told they’re carrying big/small etc.

        1. 'Tis Me*

          Aah, I thought I deleted the first part of that! I asked a colleague instead coz I hadn’t seen her for over a year (in which time the health issues had occurred) and when I did I thought I might have missed an announcement. I didn’t want to ask and put her on the spot but if she was and it was open knowledge I’d have sent her a quick “BTW congrats, I hope everything’s going well” email.

    2. Ann O.*

      People are not mind readers. There are conflicting norms. It is not always rude to ask someone what is wrong with them when something is visibly wrong. Sometimes it can be the breath of compassion that a person needed.

      These things aren’t absolutes, and I don’t think there’s any benefit to pretending that they are.

  72. curlykat*

    (Apologies for not having time to read all the responses above me. I will go back later and read them all.) I think this is an opportunity to educate. (Especially in that setting!) People don’t understand invisible illnesses or those with flare-ups. Yes, it’s a personal thing, but the more people who can be made to understand these issues, the better for everyone living with those challenges.

    1. LKW*

      One can only spend so much time educating though. After a while it becomes too much. It’s personal and if you don’t want to be the ambassador for invisible disabilities, you don’t have to take on the role.

    2. Fikly*

      Except that no one is under any obligation to make things better for the rest of the group they are in, and you shouldn’t imply that they are.

    3. san junipero*

      Okay, but just like you don’t have time to read all the responses, OP and OP’s disabled compatriots don’t always have the time or energy or brainpower to sit there and educate someone instead of living their lives.

  73. LKW*

    My dad had something akin and he would have cane days, crutch days and chair days. When anyone would ask him what was going on he’d just shrug and say “Need the chair today!”

    No one is entitled to your health information. You can be ridiculously and frustratingly vague with your comments or just sassy as hell.
    “Oh you know medical stuff, wake up in the morning, legs don’t work. You know how it goes.”
    “Doctor said I’m never going be a professional soccer player now – I’m heartbroken”
    “I’m preparing for a community play “Wheels and McGee” – I’m playing McGee”
    “Doctor says I’ve got MYOB”
    “Doctor thinks my humors are unbalanced and recommended bloodletting but I’ve made $50 this month”

    1. Quill*

      “Wake up in the morning, legs don’t work,”

      I like your dad, especially because I’ve had those days. (In my case it’s actually one ankle.)

  74. mf*

    For people like your coworker who react belligerently or don’t seem to believe you need a wheelchair, you can always refer them to your manager.

    “What did you DO?”
    “Nothing, I just have a disability.”
    “Since when?”
    “Karen, if you have concerns about my wheelchair use at work, please see to my manager about it, OK?”

  75. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

    For one small part of this: if someone else asks “But what did you DO?” tell them “I bought a wheelchair, and it’s great.”

  76. Contracts Killer*

    I don’t know if this will help since your campus is much bigger than an office, but this worked for me. My pregnancy ended with a very traumatic birth that I hated reliving. I didn’t mind people knowing, but I didn’t want to talk about it. So I pulled aside my favorite cousin and best coworker and told them each the fully story. I then asked if they would do what they could to share the story with family and coworkers who asked or they thought might. They ended with – this is not a secret, but Contracts Killer really doesn’t want to talk about it. Amazingly, NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON asked, they just welcomed me back or asked for baby pictures.

    It sounds like you don’t mind people knowing about your condition, you just don’t want to constantly rehash it. Maybe a version of this would work for you. I think Alison may have given similar advice when someone’s going through a divorce or something else that isn’t a secret but isn’t up for discussion.

  77. Concerned Coworker, not a Nosy Rosy*

    You’ve received lots of great advice here. I can definitely see myself as one of the people you mention. I would be the one you don’t work with often who says, “Oh, what happened?!” the first time I see you in a wheelchair. It would be out of genuine concern for your well being. An answer like, “I occasionally need a wheelchair,” would satisfy my question. Not that I need to be satisfied, but an answer like, “None of your business,” though completely accurate, would feel like a slap in the face, when I was only concerned about a coworker I like, not prying about the details of their health.

    1. Me*

      I would encourage you to reconsider the question you would ask. If you look at what those with disabilities and chronic illness are saying here, managing others expectations of info is exhausting and unwanted.

      A “Hi, how are you” covers concern for their general well-being.

    2. Fikly*

      If you can’t express your concern in an appropriate manner, a slap in the face is an appropriate response.

    3. SbuxAddict*

      I was this person until I became disabled so I get it. Honestly, though, it feels like you no longer see me when you say that. You just see the chair. You don’t notice my hair looks amazing today or my eyes are sparkling because I just managed to navigate a particularly difficult hallway. It’s the chair that drew your focus.

      What you can do is ignore the chair. See me. Ask how I’m doing. Compliment my shirt. Ask how my day is. Whatever it is that you would ask anyone without a chair, do the same to me. Just be normal and don’t add to the pile of people in society who are already implying I’m different.

      On a day when I’m not in the chair and if we’re friendly coworkers, ask me about it when we’re having coffee or just talking. But only if we have that kind of relationship. Otherwise, let me tell you on my own if you can. I joke about my amputation all the time at work because funny things happen when you have one foot. If we’re at all close, I’ll tell you about it on my own terms. But please please please let me be the one to dictate how and when I share this with you.

    4. ADHSquirrelWhat*

      Go by body language, not by “holy crap a mobility aid”.

      I cannot stress that enough. If the person is used to it, it SHOWS. If they’re struggling, that shows too! If they’re just motoring along like nothing’s strange – nothing’s strange!

    5. Kella*

      I get that it’s out of concern, but “What happened?” is absolutely prying into details of their health. If the problem was health-based, I have to tell you I have a physical condition, which I may not want to disclose at all. If it’s injury based, I have to tell you how I was injured and what was injured. I may not want to talk about that if it was traumatic.

      Also the people who say “none of your business” have definitely had a hundred people before you who pried and wouldn’t take no for an answer, or started abusing them when they found out the answer, or treated them differently after finding they have a condition. It’s a boundary and they’re just letting you know that you touched it.

      I’d really encourage you to switch to a different phrasing like, “Is everything okay?” or if you know them better, “This is new, is everything okay?” That leaves them much more room to decide for themselves the direction of the conversation, whereas “What happened” doesn’t leave someone an easy out if they don’t want to talk about. I they are a complete stranger to you, as in you’ve seen them but never spoken, I’d recommend saying nothing. They don’t want additional people they don’t know asking them questions when they’re trying to go about their day.

  78. Marissa*

    Similar to what you have been saying and what other commenters have said, I think for now, as some people get used to the chair, you can say something along the lines of “Oh, I got a chair to help with my disability when it flairs up.” This clarify’s for people that the disability is not new and therefore they don’t need to be concerned. Alternatively or as more people get used to it an “Oh, I use this some days when I need it.” Not their business why you need it, but curiosity is human, even if it is sometime a little rude and a little context helps people who are genuinely asking out of concern.

    1. The Other Marissa*

      OT: Sorry, I didn’t realize there was another Marissa commenting here! I don’t comment frequently, so I’ll switch to something new.

    2. Elsajeni*

      Yeah, I think a script that acknowledges that there’s been a change might actually help discourage some of that “but what happened” or “but since when” type of rudeness! Like, obviously those are rude questions regardless, but to some extent they’re motivated by people noticing a change and being concerned about it — a script like yours, or “Yes, I just got this! It’s a great help when my disability is flaring up,” or “Yeah, I decided to start using a chair on bad days — I used to just have to stay home,” gives them a guidepost of, okay, this isn’t a new problem, it’s a new solution to an existing problem.

  79. Prof Ma'am*

    My husband also has a form of dysautonomia and brain fog is a major symptom. These conditions have so many hidden symptoms that are happening all the time. People are just not good at understanding that. Even ones that know about the condition… they forget (out of site, out of mind?).

    So I don’t know what advice to give besides just try to be kind to yourself. If it’s a good day except for the mobility issues then you’ve got a lot of great responses suggested in the comments. If it’s a bad day, and you’re just trying to get through it, don’t worry about perfect responses. You’re allowed to feel like crap. You’re allowed to not want to put on a happy face and offer cheerful responses.

  80. Wing Leader*

    I can understand your coworkers’ confusion and concern if they’re not used to seeing you in a wheelchair. If they aren’t expecting it, it’s normal for them to think that you’ve been in a horrible accident or something. That said, that certainly doesn’t give them the right to be nosy or pushy about your health. I see two possible options:

    1. If you’re comfortable with it, you can have one of your managers send out a quick informational email to everyone, something like:

    “I’d like to let everyone know that you may occasionally see Jane using a wheelchair. If you do, please do not be alarmed, and please do not interrogate her. She is dealing with health issues that sometimes require her to be in a chair. Anyone who does push for information from Jane will be written up for harassment.”

    But if sending an email like that isn’t possible or you’re just not comfortable with it, I would stick to a very quick, vague explanation and change of subject. So, when someone asks you what happened or if you’re okay, you could say:

    “Oh, I’m just fine, thanks. I have health issues that require me to be in a chair for a few days every so often. Hey, did you finish writing up that report?”

    This is the best advice I got. Hope it helps, OP.

  81. AyBeeCee*

    “Are you okay?/What happened?”
    “Oh I’m just having a flare up, don’t worry about it.” and either end there or “So how about the weather/that local sports team?”

    And if they push more, like “How long have you had to deal with this?” then a breeze “Oh, a while. Not really a big deal at this point. So how about that ABC report?/I like your sweater!” People like talking about themselves so commenting on something about them might distract them enough to get you out of that topic, if not the conversation entirely.

  82. cape daisy*

    I have dealt with trichotillmania, chronic hair pulling, for 30 years. The look I rock is ‘do I have mange’ or ‘recovering from a horrific illness’. It’s bad enough to regularly panic people on public transport to offer me their seat, as they don’t know what’s wrong with me. I also get stared at regularly.
    I deal with questions by answering with sarcasm.
    If you’re rude enough to ask, I will make you feel uncomfortable with my response.
    Either ‘yes I do have mange & it’s contagious’ or ‘I’m too sexy and my hair couldn’t handle it, so checked out’ or ‘ what hair loss?’ followed by looking confused and walking away.
    I appreciate that my situation isn’t anywhere as limiting as the Poster and hope they find a way to live as well as they can with their illnesses and having to deal with negativity at work.
    The one positive I have is that with my condition, people tend to remember me. This has led to people in restaurants or shops being super nice to me, remembering what I ordered or bought on my last visit, giving me discounts and letting me jump queues. I like the positive energy coming into my life and try to return it back. So not looking like everyone else is nice way to live your life sometimes.

  83. Have you tried rebooting?*

    Absurd questions often need absurd answers.
    Potential answers to “What did you do?”
    “Werewolf attack!”
    “Got into a fight with a ham sandwich”
    “You must know my evil twin!”

  84. Happy Pineapple*

    I use a variation of these from my chronic illness that isn’t quite as visible, but people do catch on when I’m flaring. I’ve also named the illness Carol to add some humor and make it discreet, such as, “Oh I’m fine, Carol’s just in a bad mood today!”

    For first time explanations: “It’s nothing to worry about! I have a condition/illness/disability that sometimes makes it hard to walk. The wheelchair really helps when I have a flare up.”

    If people forget: “It’s just my illness/Carol acting up again. I’m okay!”

    If they are being rude or keep asking: “That’s really personal.” / “Oh, I’d rather not talk about it.” / “What an odd thing to say.” / “Wow, that’s really none of your business.” / “F*** off.”

  85. Leela*

    Hi OP! Some commiseration here, I too have a very rare chronic illness (form of leukemia) that affects my mobility but not the same amount each day, and people are AWFUL about it.

    Like you, sometimes I can walk just fine and you’d never know anything is up with me (but you wouldn’t see that I’ve been diagnosed with osteoarthritis following the chemo and am in constant pain), sometimes I have difficulty, sometimes I need a cane, and I’ve had to call in sick to work because I literally can’t move enough to get dressed and out the door.

    I am constantly yelled at and bullied on the train in to work for sitting in the priority seats by the door (if I don’t sit in those ones, I have to bend my knees back to a degree that my physiotherapist has forbidden and can cause flare-ups for days). Pregnant women have unfortunately become the bane of my existence because they see me, a fairly young-looking woman, sitting in the priority seats and assume I’m just sitting there for no reason and try to throw me out, and strangers back them because their need for the seat shows and mine doesn’t. They don’t EVER move on and ask anyone else in the seats to move, they get obsessed with getting me out of mine.

    People at work can definitely ask intrusive questions, or scoff derisively when I have to do something for a medical need that they feel inconveniences them, or act like I’m lying because I looked fine yesterday.

    It’s a constant barrage of uneducated guesses from strangers and people I know alike. I’m seriously considering getting brochures about invisible illness printed up and just shoving it in the hands of anyone who starts asking because I’m so sick of the conversations that are posed as curiosity but are clearly them probing to find out if I’m lying and see what they can uncover. If you find anything that works on your end, please share!

    1. ADHSquirrelWhat*

      The one thing I would suggest is to actually have a visible cane with you even when you don’t “need” it. Having a cane can help with random stranger issues – if nothing else, you can point to it if people ask why you’re sitting there!

      Which is crap, because you shouldn’t need to manage other people’s expectations, but if it helps …..

      Good luck! Dealing with other people’s bull suuuuucks.

      1. Leela*

        This often works and it’s crazy to me that it does (I mean anyone at all could go buy a cane at a drugstore without a prescription so I’m not sure what it’s “proving” to them!) Unfortunately using a cane can irritate my back which often slips a disc without warning or has other issues, so I tend not to take it unless I really need it but I’ve definitely considered it!

        1. ADHSquirrelWhat*

          oh my gods, you can’t win, can you? UGH.

          I sometimes use a cane for vertigo (and sometimes sciatica, and sometimes both! what FUN) and I’ve done the sort of blind-walk with it – pushing it ahead without putting weight on it. Maybe that would help?

          I hope you do find a solution – chronic pain is bad enough without chronic people!

        2. Quill*

          My gramps said the same thing after he had back reconstruction, but he carried his cane with him anyway in case he needed to knock something off a high shelf. :)

    2. BadWolf*

      Maybe bring your cane with on the train whether you need it that day or not? Hold it so it can be seen? Obviously some people will think you also can’t possibly need a cane, but it might fend off some people.

      But the brochure thing doesn’t seem like an entirely bad idea either.

      1. BadWolf*

        Although hauling your cane around when you don’t need it is probably a different annoyance. Collapsible cane? Single walking stick that is light weight and can be collapsed down?

        1. ADHSquirrelWhat*

          Lots of canes are collapsible these days – I’ve got two, and I keep one in the car just in case I’m out and have a flare. They fold down pretty small and lightweight.

          Which isn’t to say it’s not a pain to cart one around visibly on days when it’s not physically necessary, but sometimes that can’t be the primary consideration. Because invisible disability is not the same as imaginary, no matter what some people think.

    3. Jan*

      I’m so sorry to hear you have to put up with that. I don’t know where you live, but here in the UK, Transport for London gives out badges that say “Please offer me a seat” and “Baby on board”. That way, someone with an invisible disability or someone not obviously pregnant can be offered a seat without assumptions, judgments or the awkwardness of someone else trying to guess and risking causing offence if they’re wrong! Maybe see if there’s anything like that available to you.

    4. Media Monkey*

      in london, we have badges saying “baby on board” for pregnant women and “please offer me a seat” for invisible conditions. is there anything like that you could access where you are?

    5. 'Tis Me*

      A few years back I went on a public transport journey with my mum and sister (hidden mobility issues). I think on 3 occasions Mum went to people on those priority seats and began explaining “excuse me please, would one of you mind moving? My daughter has mobility issues and can’t stand on a moving trai-” and the train would start and I would catch the healthy looking person in her late teens/early 20s just before she smacked down hard on the train floor.

      Somebody would inevitably move at that point, but even though I prevented injury, it still wasn’t exactly great for her! (Also I have lesser issues so this was not particularly good for me.)

  86. nnn*

    I wonder if, since the wheelchair is fairly new, people might be thinking you were in an accident or something. (Like if someone showed up at work one day with crutches or a cast). I’m not sure if that actually affects your strategy though.

    In terms of scripting, it might be useful in some cases to speak positively of the wheelchair. “I’ve discovered that it’s enormously helpful to use a wheelchair on days when I’m having a flare-up! Total game-changer! Much better than having to stay home in bed all day!”

    This does have the disadvantage of not being quick, and of not enforcing the fact that it’s none of their business.

    However, this might be helpful for educating students, introducing them to the concept of occasional wheelchair use and to the idea that a wheelchair can be empowering. (If students today aren’t already familiar with these concepts – I wasn’t exposed to them until my 30s, but today’s kids are more worldly than I am)

  87. YRH*

    If it is something you feel comfortable doing (and this is far in the future) organizing a talk on chronic illness and invisibly disability could be really valuable, especially since you seem interested in educating students. You could make it as personal or impersonal as you want. (Bias disclaimer: my mom has a progressive autoimmune disorder and got very comfortable speaking about it publicly. However, that’s not for everyone. Your health is your own business, not other people’s.)

  88. Blisskrieg*

    Really good advice and scripts in the comments. The one caveat is I notice you say sometimes you really do like to discuss it. Certainly it is your prerogative to have conversations with the people with whom you want to, but you may want to ensure you are consistent across groups rather than making it dependent on your mood. For example, if a not-to-close coworker notices or hears a scrap of conversation with another not-to-close coworker, that may be confusing if they approach you thinking that is something you do like to discuss only to be shut down. Some people genuinely do like to share information (I am one of those people who is super transparent and don’t mind) so again, different responses within same groups of coworkers might send really mixed messages.

    Of course, people who are pressing and rude deserve always to be shut down!

    1. StrikingFalcon*

      The OP has no obligation to do this. She can share whatever information she wants to share when she is in the mood for it. She doesn’t owe *anyone* an explanation, and the fact that she sometimes has the energy to give one doesn’t obligate her to always give one. People with disabilities don’t owe other people explanations for why they use mobility aids! Asking “are you okay” is fine to do, but only if you can accept “yes” as an answer without pushing for more. Honestly, even if she had just broken her leg and was on crutches, she doesn’t need to tell anyone the story! It gets old fast! And when it’s chronic, the questions are *EXHAUSTING.* Like I genuinely have to do the calculation of “is the energy I save by using the cane/wheelchair worth the effort of answering questions about it.” Plus the percentage of people who are really weird about it when they find out is strangely high, so there’s this constant fear of “how will this person I barely know react?”

      1. Blisskrieg*

        I completely agree she does not have an obligation. It is completely up to her how to proceed and I respect that. I do have a chronic ailment as well, and have a severely disabled child. I am just stating how it may be perceived among like groups of colleagues if her responses are wildly different. That’s all.

        1. StrikingFalcon*

          I’m sorry if I came across a bit harsh last night, but I’m at a work thing, my disability is visible for the time to a lot of people, and I’ve been running the gamut of responses. It’s just that there’s no way I can give the full explanation of everything to everyone. If I’m using a mobility aid, I’m already low on energy. I’ve been sharing as I feel able and as feels appropriate to my relationships with people. You’re probably not wrong, but also it’s already a lot to manage.

          1. Blisskrieg*

            Even with reasonable accommodations, I can only begin to imagine that the workworld is not easy to navigate with visible disabilities, so I don’t pretend to understand. (My child’s disability is extremely severe mental health issues–so not visible, and they’re not working). I appreciated your perspective as someone in that position.

  89. Stanley Nickles*

    I’d try: “It’s just something I need from time to time.” and change the subject. Short and sweet without having to discuss the why. If someone is rude enough to not take a hint, a firm “I appreciate your concern but I’d rather not get into it” is a good deflector to follow up questions.

    Try to reframe the reasons for these questions for your own sanity, too. Most acquaintances are probably surprised/concerned for you and may not realize they are being rude or that you’ve been dealing with questions about it all day.

    If you feel yourself getting annoyed, take a few beats to mentally remind yourself they are coming from a different place than you and take a deep breath. That will give you a chance to reset, lessen your annoyance, and maybe give the other person a moment to realize they need a reset, too. I can absolutely understand how taxing it would be to deal with those types of questions, though! Good luck.

  90. Maggie*

    I have a question as someone who does not want to be rude but who has found herself in the position of the asker’s coworkers – does anyone have suggestions for how to frame a genuinely concerned question about a coworker’s well-being? As someone who cares about coworkers, even those I only interact with occasionally, my initial thought if a coworker who had previously been mobile showed up in a wheelchair would be, “Oh no, are they ok?!” I realize that this would put the person is a possibly awkward position, but *I* would feel unkind if I didn’t check in with them, and also offer to help how I could. Is there a better way to ask about their well-being and show concern? Should I just ignore it and treat them like I usually would? Or just offer to help without asking for specifics?

    1. san junipero*

      Please don’t offer to help unless they ask or VERY obviously need it. If it turns out the wheelchair is an intermittent part of their daily lives, they probably have their routine figured out.

      Otherwise, I think just asking “How are you?” is sufficient. If they want to explain the chair, they will.

    2. ADHSquirrelWhat*

      Thinking “oh are they okay” is fine – that’s the thought.

      ACTION, OTOH, should be more nuanced. Do they look like they know what they’re doing? Are they having trouble with doorways, or bumping into things, or swearing a lot? Then ask! If they look bored as they motor along, just say hi.

      But really, someone who’s used to a mobility aid already can figure out how to get through the usual doors and whatnot. Someone NOT used to it will suddenly do the not-enough-hands flail of trying to figure out how to manage. Go by that.

    3. Laura H.*

      Firstly, I don’t think asking should be problematic if it’s from a clear concerned angle. It’s not! I get that it bristles but honestly, people ARE going to ask- heck, I ask my friends who use devices if they’re ok or want help, that’s simply my nature to offer assistance or to go get it if I cannot assist.

      The big thing is don’t be invasive or obnoxious about it and talk at my level (don’t assume incapability or that there’s diminished intelligence) talk to me like you would any other adult- if I need clarification and or a specific type of help- I’ll ask and make it clear. (I stated this above)

      I understand being burned by persistent jerks, but I feel these blanket “don’t ask” don’t help things either.

    4. Hawk*

      Just ask them “how are you?” Sometimes I want to share, sometimes I don’t (I have a limp that randomly appears due to EDS and a congenital defect). At least for me, it gives me the option to share if I want to. Sometimes I do (usually indicated by how brightly colored my KT tape is, but that’s only for me).

    5. Anon Here*

      I think a neutral way to test the waters would be best. While we’re discussing this from the angle of being disabled, it can be different when the cause is an injury or brand new illness. If you completely ignore it, some people will be offended. “Did you notice I’m using a wheelchair? You don’t care?” That could come from anyone, but it seems to be more common with injuries and short-term things.

      I think normal small talk could be a good starting point. Just ask, “How are you?” and proceed based on the impression you get – whether they seem to want to talk about it or not.

    6. Kella*

      I think, “Hey, is everything okay?” is a good way to give them the opportunity to tell you if something happened or to tell you they’re fine, meaning they don’t want to talk about it. If you’re closer with them, I’d say something like, “This is new, did something happen?”

      Basically, taking the emphasis off the idea that wheelchair= one single incident and letting them take the lead on how the conversation goes.

    7. StrikingFalcon*

      “Are you okay?” is better than “What happened?!” but “How are you?” is best. Then they can tell you what happened if they want to or just say “Good” and move on like normal if not. Please don’t ever say “What did you do?!” like it’s somehow their fault.

      Trust me, I can tell you noticed the mobility aid, but honestly, I just want it to feel normal and not like a spectacle. If we have a normal conversation first, I am way more likely to tell you something about it than if you demand explanations up front.

  91. AngelicGamer, the Visually Impaired Peep*

    Dang, LW, now I know where my high school bullies who, when I went from not needing a red tipped cane to needing one and calling me fake and liar to my face, went. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this and I would make note of their names, time and date, and run it up the chain. I’m not sure where you are, but if you’re in the US, this is really not kosher.

    1. Anon Here*

      Seconded! I’d be concerned about the one who got in your face, especially if she’s a colleague who works with students. That’s really not ok.

  92. Blue Eagle*

    I wouldn’t even mention a disability. Maybe just say “it’s not one of my better days, maybe tomorrow will be better” and repeat as needed for follow-up questions that ask you for more info.

  93. Cyrus*

    “Since when?”
    “Why don’t you ask HR?” Or, if that’s too standoffish (I don’t think it is in general, but if this is someone on your boss’s level or something, who knows), “That’s a personal question, but let’s just say it comes and goes. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

  94. Four lights*

    “Today, I just need a wheelchair to get around.” Also, don’t feel like you have to convince people or educate people. Some people just won’t get it even if you did explain it to them. I imagine you might feel a little bit of a burden to do so to help other people of course, but also because of what it sounds like you’ve been dealing with with the HR at your job. But some of the stress of trying to find the right thing to say might come from a feeling of needing to teach people to not be rude. But that’s not something you have to do, and is something that they have to learn from.

  95. Unpopular Opinionist*

    I think you are handling it very well as it is. It is perfectly fine to let people know you are annoyed/baffled at some of their questions.
    One thing you can add if you want people to realise that their questions are unwelcome/excessive/way out of line, or if you ended up looking more annoyed than you intended (especially with the students) is “You may not realise this, but I get asked about this several times a day and I don’t want all interactions with people be about my wheelchair/health.”
    Variant for the rude people: “You may not realise this but your question is extremely intrusive. I don’t intend to discuss the details of my health with strangers/acquaintances and the fact that my disability/condition is visible does not mean it is up for public discussion.” It avoids being confrontational (when you don’t want to be, if you want to, that’s absolutely your call) and hopefully makes them think about how to change their behaviour not just with you but with the next wheelchair/crutches/neck brace user.

  96. Elder Dog*

    I’m in and out of a wheelchair because of a disability that comes and goes. In my experience, people aren’t asking about my disability. They’re asking why I’m suddenly in a wheelchair.
    So I tell them “I’m having a flare. Should be better soon.” and roll away.

    If “flare” isn’t appropriate then find another single word that implies a short temporary worsening of your usual condition. But you don’t need to explain the condition unless you feel like it.

    That’s all most people need. If somebody gets in your face, ask “Why are you so close to me?” and then give them the flare answer.

  97. BrainFlogged*

    I have MS, and one idea I had (and since you want to educate the students on it) is to do something like a “MS awareness day” in the company, much like HR is allways doing with another diseases (like breast cancer, etc). You could or not provide a personal testimony to be included in that campain, but the important is that the message is going to everyone at once. Drop the hint to HR or your bosses if you think that would help.

  98. Nee Attitude*

    Hang a sign from your chair, and/or print a card, that says, “Please don’t inquire about my wheelchair unless I know you personally or we have business with each other.” Refer to it whenever anyone violates your boundaries and feel free to ignore anyone who continues.

  99. Phil*

    I had a sharp dividing line between able and disabled. A post surgical infection damaged my cervical vertebrae and left me paralyzed. I’m mostly OK now but have a plate in my neck, which means I can’t move my head, and nerve damage which means I walk haltingly with a cane but I can walk. I was shocked at first at the number of strangers who felt it was OK to comment on me, how I walked, why I wasn’t looking at them-news flash, I can’t move my head-and in general feeling that rude comments are OK to make to a stranger. I used to try to explain but it’s complicated so now I just ignore them.
    The other side is that to some people I’m invisible. You would be shocked at the number of times people just cut in front of me in line at the movies, supermarket, anywhere. I still haven’t figured out why but it happens all the time.
    I think many people are uncomfortable about possibly becoming disabled themselves and this results in comments and line cutting.

    1. ADHSquirrelWhat*

      There’s a disturbing number of people that truly believe disability is a Sign that God/whatever is Punishing You. And that anything like basic human compassion would .. I don’t know, get in the way of that? Put them in deific crosshairs? /something/.

      But there’s definitely the thing with some people that they are so afraid of the disability cooties that they will pretend you don’t exist. And others where they need to “prove” that you “deserve it” and therefore they’re right to not care. Only “bad people” get these problems after all. *gag*

  100. Lisa*

    Wow what a rude co-worker. How about this answer “I actually caught a very rare paralytic virus… very awful and highly contagious ” that will keep her from coming near you again. It never fails to amaze me how people can be so invasive!

    She actually said “Since when” do you have a disability… wow…

  101. Lalitah28*

    I am so sorry you are experiencing this, OP.
    I suggest we rally your most trusted managers, supervisors and co-workers to help you out in this regard.
    A short meeting explaining the situation and asking for assistance on how to shut down coworkers who demand an explanation for your occasional use of a wheelchair should do the trick, with a couple of reminders:
    Discussions about medical related information is specifically protected by HIPAA. Employers should not disclose medical information about employees to other employees without consent. Could HR help in this regard in educating the employees?
    Apart from that: no one has a legal right to demand to know what your health status is.
    I hope this helpful.

  102. BuzzLightyear*

    I have an invisible disability that requires me to use a cane. I am on the younger side so most people don’t realize it’s disability-related. I get these “well-meaning” “ohmygoodness what HAPPENED!?” comments aaaaalll the time. I used to smile and answer, but honestly it’s exhausting. Now I just go with “It’s a medical thing” and return to what I’m doing or change the subject. If they keep questioning (which…rude) then I either follow up with “It’s a permanent disability, I don’t like to talk about it” or simply “trauma” and then let the awkwardness sit in the air.

    I get that they seem well-intentioned and so you want to answer politely, but ultimately your medical history is no one else’s business. It is okay to shut this down from the start and you don’t owe anyone insight into your body.

  103. Jdc*

    I think if you have never used a wheelchair and suddenly show up in one people are going to think you broke something or the likes. Please understand that it’s just surprise and concern not trying to be rude. Same if I walked in on crutches tomorrow. “Oh J what happened?” would be a very common and normal reaction.

    1. ADHSquirrelWhat*

      Here’s the difference – if you were suddenly on crutches, having never used them before, you’d also be /obviously having issues adjusting/. Even if there was nothing else visibly different about you, you’d be doing the door-flail of “how do I manage this I need more hands” and whatnot.

      OTOH, if you used crutches on an irregular basis depending on flare-ups and otherwise seemed fine, you’d be all “door. I got this” and moving confidently. To the point that “oh what happened?” might even take you a minute because it’s just .. the crutches, why are you acting weird?

      The body language around the mobility aid, or whatever the issue is, goes a long way to clarifying whether or not something /just/ happened.

    2. Elliott Smith Song*

      I don’t think you need to explain to LW *why* people are asking these questions. The problem is that people are nosy and intrusive, and as the LW says, that can make coping with a condition that already involves tiredness and brain fog as a side effect really difficult. The bottom line is that when people insist on asking intrusive questions and ignore the other person’s body language and clear attempts to convey that they do not want to have a conversation about it, the person asking the questions is likely doing so to satisfy their own curiosity and potential anxiety about disability– when you’re truly concerned about someone, you are respectful of their boundaries unless they really seem to be in desperate need of help. Even if someone experienced a sudden accident, it still isn’t other people’s business to know the details and usually if the person is not volunteering the story or details it is because they probably do not want to share it at the time.

  104. Sarah H.*

    I’m so sorry to hear about your dysautonomia, I know that it can be really debilitating and hope that you can find relief for it soon!

    I have a relatively mild form of POTS and people just can’t seem to wrap their heads around the idea that sometimes you feel fine and other times you don’t. I’ve found that the best way to deal with it is just barrage them with medical jargon. Throw out every twenty letter medical term that applies to your condition and they usually stop asking questions pretty fast.

    1. Sarah H.*

      For the record, I completely understand that this might not help as you, rightfully, might not want to tell your coworkers more than they need to know. I think the vast majority of people are genuinely just concerned, however, there are always a few that just nosy. The nosy people usually quiet pretty quickly when they get hit with medical terms they don’t understand.

  105. Tanny*

    Hi there – as a former residence life professional I can absolutely understand the various environments where this happens on campus. If you’re living on campus, this is very hard to be so visible and have no separation! For myself in similar situations, I like saying, in a confused tone (I *am* confused at the rudeness) “Oh, I have never gotten that question before. Why do you ask?” or “Surely you’ve seen me like this before. Is there a reason you’re asking?” and that throws people off without being rude yourself. Then you can use a response like many commenters have given like “I would prefer not to talk about my body/disability/chair.” and change the subject.

    I know with students or coworkers, you need to be mindful of hierarchies or dynamics of power. Good luck!

  106. Fall of the House of Gushers*

    I’ve had really good luck with, “It’s not super interesting” + subject change, usually a friendly, small-talky question about themselves.

    “It’s not super interesting, but what have you been up to lately?”
    “It’s not that interesting, but how bout that game yesterday?”

    1. Kella*

      Yeah I’ve started saying “Because of a super boring health issue” + subject change more often and that works really well.

  107. Quill*

    Hide day old cod in their offices.

    … On a much more useful and less vindictive note, letting people who are less of jerks (but will still call these people out) know ahead of time, like “I’m trying a wheelchair for my less mobile days, I’m excited about the potential improvement,” and “I’d appreciate it if you could help me head off people’s concerns: it’s actually a sign of improvement, not the other way around,” might work as a script for getting people in the office know “Hey I’ll be using this but only some times,” heading off the assumption that you injured yourself. Which will, hopefully, tone down the number of people who feel entitled to an explanation.

  108. Cyndi*

    I used a manual wheelchair for 10 years even though I could walk just fine. Like you, I would have varying levels of functionality. I almost never used the chair at home or in other small spaces. I needed it for any sort of distance (even crossing the street) or places where I’d have to stand a lot. Before I got it, I had a lot of collapsing into full blown asthma attacks and unable to stand up for an hour sort of thing (people would call paramedics, who couldn’t do a thing for me, it was quite unfun).

    The medical conditions that caused these symptoms also made me drop out of grad school and stop working (yep, brain fog was major), so I never used a wheelchair in a workplace, though I did do conferences and other business activities in one. I got a lot of crap for things like standing up to walk into a bathroom stall, or to get the wheelchair in and out of the car. It’s amazing the number of people who think wheelchairs are only for people who can’t walk at all.

    Whether or not I used the wheelchair (and how much) depended on my symptoms at the moment. My disabilities didn’t change. I haven’t used my chair for 15 years but I still have the same disabilities. I’m just a lot more functional and able to be out in the world. It’s the symptoms that changed.

    My advice is to convey to others that you’re having a “good day” or a “bad day” or whatever wording you’re comfortable with. It could be a “non-walking day” or a “tired legs day.” Whatever works for you. It’s a quick and easy way to make it clear to people that you’re always disabled and the wheelchair is just a tool you use when it’s helpful to do so. On the flip side, it’s a good way to tell people (quickly and without fuss) that just because they see you up and walking doesn’t mean you’re “all better.” If someone continues to pressure, maybe keep repeating “yep, it’s one of those days” and roll away.

    In more of an activist sense, it also gets to the issue that a lot of people see using a wheelchair as “giving up.” I’ve had people tell me “I’d rather be dead.” I tell them that’s BS. I loved my wheelchair. Without it I was stuck at home. With it, I could go out and do things. If you talk about it as a tool, that helps everyone with disabilities that require medical equipment. It’s just like pulling out my reading glasses when I need to read something small. It’s normal and a way to do the things we want to do.

    1. Blueberry*

      “I’d rather be dead.”?! Good grief, why are people so awful. Thank you for telling us this.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Cyndi, I am impressed that you did not tell them that we are each allowed to have our own preferences, but we are not allowed to have OTHER peoples’ preferences FOR them.

        I would have had to zip my lip, “So, um, I have chosen to continue living. I guess to each his or her own, right?”

      2. Kella*

        Yeah disabled people, wheelchair users especially, hear variations on this a lot. Related things to hear are, “Disabled people should be put out of their misery,” and “it’s so difficult taking care of my disabled kid, sometimes I think about killing her.” I’m not joking or exaggerating with either one of these statements.

        1. KoiFeeder*

          “Oh, your mom hasn’t driven you off a bridge yet.” was the one I got about every day in fifth grade. From the teacher.

      3. Cyndi*

        To be fair, the only people who said this were ones that didn’t know I used to regularly use a wheelchair. And one of the people was 90 and at the end of her dance teaching career. It still isn’t okay to say it of course and I didn’t let it slide.

    2. 'Tis Me*

      Thanks for this – I’ve been facing up to the fact that I probably need to go through a PIP assessment and get registered disabled, and seriously consider stop working full-time. But both of those things do feel like giving up (and on a good day I am virtually “normal”, but the last time I had a day like that was kinda 18 months ago now I think)… I’ve been working to adjust my thinking and acknowledge that what I’m doing currently isn’t working. Looking into what could, and would allow me to prioritise the things that really matter (doing stuff with my kidlets, being able to keep on top of the housework while my husband deals with cellulitis so he doesn’t risk permanent damage to his knee by doing stuff he shouldn’t instead of resting and recovering) makes sense.

  109. Rocinante*

    I am honestly not surprised about the “since when” comment. There is a certain segment of humanity, especially in America it seems, that thinks everyone is getting one up on them. There was a horrid exchange I saw on Facebook this Monday with Southwest Airlines with a woman digging the airline about their wheelchair policy in regards to boarding. Basically people using wheelchairs to board first.

    The woman making the comments was a police officer and had tons of pictures of her doing Crossfit. You can imagine who she voted for (yep all over her profile) too.

  110. blink14*

    OP – I feel for you and can relate on a lesser scale – especially with brain fog! I was (finally) diagnosed last year with a primary immune deficiency disease, among many other problems, and started immunotherapy infusions for it this year. Up until starting the therapy, I was constantly severely ill, dealing with extreme fatigue, weight gain, being pale as a ghost most days, and sometimes just literally not able to function past a basic point of sleeping and using the bathroom. The infusions are helping tremendously on the sick front, and my fatigue is there but more manageable (also likely have chronic fatigue), and thyroid medication is helping so much with the brain fog. People have noticed my varying symptoms and while often they are nice about inquiring how I’m doing and what’s been going on, I definitely have gotten the busybody interference and people acting like I have a deadly plague and eat 800 pizzas a day.

    I think fatigue and brain fog are so hard to understand unless you’ve personally dealt with it. It takes me weeks to get over a severe fatigue episode, brain fog comes and goes in waves and is generally worse at the end of the week or when my fatigue is worse. I’ll know what I need to say or write, and something else sometimes comes out. It’s hard to do basic tasks, having a conversation or interacting in general becomes incredibly difficult.

    You know what’s best for you and how to navigate your own health. There’s always going to be an annoying person who asks too many questions, and I either shut them down completely by going silent, or keep talking until they lose interest!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Brain fog would make a great discussion for an open forum day, too.
      I relate to brain fog that comes with grief. It’s unreal. Basic things just fall by the way side, like checking to see if both shoes match. Bills? What bills?, etc.

      Unfortunately, an older friend of mine lost her husband. And the brain fog rolled in with the grief. Shockingly, her family started teasing her about being senile. I found it very disturbing to watch this. One family member strongly stated that the felt Older Friend was “losing it” because they were repeating themselves. This family member told me this FIVE times in the course of a twenty minute conversation. And you know what I had to do. “You have told me that you think [my friend/their family member] is going senile five times in the last twenty minutes. YOU are repeating YOURself. I don’t think you are senile. I think you are in grief and your heart is crying.”

      People can randomly go blank for many reasons. We all could benefit from cutting each other a little more slack.

      1. BrainFlogged*

        I had that conversation wich my sister, just yesterday:

        Sister: Did you pay for {niece name} swimming classes this month?
        Me (who pays fot it every month) : What swimming classes?

        Luckily, my sister is habituated to my random blanks. And I did pay the classes.

  111. Instant Gratification Monkey*

    I have MS and sympathize with the OP but (and this has perhaps been stated before) it’s not your obligation to educate grownups about your disability. I work in public education and the students are far more accepting of my limp, brain fog, and tendency to fall over than my colleagues, and I’ve been reading this comments thread for advice to use myself! Sometimes people can be so obtuse.

    What I do find useful though has been echoed here already–upbeat, quick, change of subject.
    “Oh my God! What’s WRONG with you?”
    “Nothing! Have a great day! Good luck with your TPS reports!”

  112. Treats for Shelby*

    If anyone – anyone here, anyone out in the world – sees their co-worker walking one day and in a wheelchair the next time they see them, they’re going to ask what happened. Probably in those exact words. It’s the most natural, logical, question for anyone to ask, and it comes from a combination of curiosity and concern. You won’t stop it. You’ll explain it over and over, sometimes in nice tones, sometimes in angry tones, sometimes in detail and sometimes in a curt manner. Trust me. I know.

  113. Bopper*

    Another option: “Email me.”

    And then have a pre-written blurb that tells what you want them to know (which can be vague or specific)

    “Hi! You have asked me what is wrong with me. I know you are curious and/or concerned. But for me, this may be the nth time I have been asked this today so I found it better to write it all down I am hoping to be known as Residence Life Professional, not only “wheelchair person.”

    I have a form of dysautonomia, which has a variety of symptoms including but not limited to being unable to walk. This ebbs and flows in severity: sometimes I can walk completely fine, sometimes I cannot walk long distances, sometimes I cannot even get from my bed to the bathroom. Often when I have a flare, it comes with many other symptoms so I end up calling in sick to work anyway, but I recently bought a wheelchair (over a month ago) to use when I am mostly fine except for mobility. Sometimes I use my wheelchair for just a couple hours until I feel better; sometimes I’m in it multiple days in a row. This has caused me to realize our residence hall is also not ADA compliant, but many coworkers and students help much of the time.

    Thanks for your concern! Continue to come with me with residence issues and if I need any help I will let you know, otherwise i have it under control.”

  114. Mobuy*

    I do like the email to everyone idea. That means you won’t have to have the conversation again, hopefully. Also, as you use the wheelchair more, most people will stop asking you. You will have to have the conversation a few times, which is unpleasant. However, do you really want to be rude to people who are (perhaps awkwardly) showing concern for you?

    I get that this is annoying, and you can certainly tell people that it’s none of their business and to back off, but you’ll burn bridges and make people feel bad. That’s certainly your right, but you need to be aware of the consequences.

  115. Vix*

    I haven’t been able to walk for a year and have this exact same problem!! I’m really looking for a good answer to it.

    A lot of times I say “I don’t want to talk about it.” Might come off as rude, but I don’t like talking about my private medical history with complete strangers. I also don’t like answering the same dang question 15+ times per day.

    1. Blueberry*

      If support from a random Internet person helps, I totally don’t think you’re being rude for saying “I don’t want to talk about it”.

  116. Alex Di Marco*

    I have been having a similar problem except with crutches and/or a walking stick. This used to, and occasionally still does drive me crazy. I have a degenerative condition which took ages to diagnose and seven years ago I started limping, then walking with crutches, then with a walking stick…. People are terrible (Seinfeld: “They are the worst”) and feel completely at ease to exclaim, question, interrogate, advise (Oh Lord) and so on and so on. First it was about my limping, then about the crutches and sticks. One incredibly persistent person asked me three times what was wrong with me despite me saying “I’m fine” each time. Finally, I said: “Will you stop asking me please” but I did not make sound like a question. My other retorts over the years have been: “Move along, nothing to see here”, “I’m playing it with a limp”, “Nice weather we’re having for this time of the year” (as it is pouring), “Look! The Queen!”… changing the subject in every direction, asking for the time, asking when a particular meeting was, where it would be held etc. Then about a year and a half ago I started taking medication which helps me walk well (almost perfectly) most of the time but in the afternoon I use a crutch. This is truly too much for many people. “What happened?!?!”, “You are walking so well!”, and my favourite, “You are cured!”, to which I have two pat answers “I know! It’s a miracle!”, or, if I am in a hurry “Hallelujah!”.
    My advice? There is no solution. People are rude, indiscreet, nosy, curious…. Accept it and smile. The more you explain the more exhausting it is. It’s none of their business and they know it, they just need to be reminded of it.

  117. Fish Microwaver*

    As someone who has a chronic condition that ebbs and flows, I just say “I have good days and bad days. Today is a bad (or good) day. Thanks for asking. “

    1. Quill*

      I can generally get away with not mentioning my arthritis flares outside of my family these days but that’s my non-snarky response for people who ask why I can’t, for example, stand in line very long. “My feet are having a bad day.”

      Snarky responses that I fantasize about using include
      “Oh, I made a deal with a sea witch, so now I’m walking on knives”
      “My feet are an evolutionary throwback to our tree-climbing ancestors”
      “Due to reasons, I have the feet of a ninety year old lady. Did you see her running past with my feet, by any chance?”

  118. Ladylike*

    I think I would use the word “condition” instead of “disability” to explain the occasional wheelchair use to people. Example: “I have a condition that occasionally flares up and makes it hard to walk.”

    If someone said this to me, I wouldn’t think another thing about it, other than feeling bad for them when I saw them in the wheelchair. I think the word “disability” has a connotation of being full-time and permanent to most people, so when you say you have a disability that only (seemingly) affects you once in a while, some people can’t wrap their heads around it and they might assume it’s not a “real” disability. Of course, they would be incorrect, but if you want to shut down the questions quickly, using a vague term like “condition” may help.

    1. Kella*

      It depends on whether the individual disabled person wants to take on this challenge, but I make a point to use the word disability because it’s a problem that people think disability means “full time” or whatever. They’ll learn that disability is more complicated than that if they see that I’m a disabled person and I don’t fit their image of that.

  119. Princesa Zelda*

    I sometimes walk with a stick, as a result of an injury. With colleagues, they basically all remember that this happens sometimes, and I just get sympathetic noises when they see me with it (with my appreciation – it HURTS and I feel seen). This past fall, however, I went to university on-campus, and classmates and professors would see me with it and want to know what happened/are you okay/let me get the door/etc. I barely knew any of them, so this was e x h a u s t i n g. I wrote down “Thank you for caring! It’s just an old injury. I’m used to it and I’ve got this.” on a piece of paper and then practiced it until it just rolled off my tongue whenever anybody said anything. It mostly headed off discussion. If they continued to Be Concerned, I launched into the details of my walking stick’s manufacture and acquisition and they got bored.

    Having a quick statement that goes like ‘Sentiment politely received. Three word simple explanation. This is normal and I’m used it,’ might help you head people off at the pass while still being polite. :)

  120. Hawk*

    Jessica Kellgren-Fozard has two great videos on YouTube called What Not to Say to Your Disabled Relative and What You Should Say to Your Disabled Relative. She also has great videos in general on the subjects of disability (she has multiple disorders including POTS and is deaf) and LGBTQ+ experiences. I highly suggest watching them because she also includes her responses.

    I suggest this mostly for the abled folks, but also in solidarity as a disabled person (EDS and a few other things). I don’t use mobility aids, but I have a visible limp when I flare or, ya know, dislocate a foot/ankle/hip spontaneously while walking (too often). People ask me all the time what I did to myself or why I am limping. My best response is “I was born with it” with a tone of finality, boredom, with a customer service smile. Because sometimes customers even ask me what happened/what’s wrong with me (ew, no, I don’t need your concern, I’m fine). Also, don’t ask someone what’s wrong with them. Or offer to pray for them. Or congratulate them for doing menial tasks.

    LW, sending you hope for better housing solutions soon. My wheelchair-using sibling has been in the exact same place. It unfortunately didn’t go well (they ended up finishing school off campus because the campus was so inaccessible). Fingers crossed your campus is a lot better!

  121. Another Reply*

    I agree with Ladylike for the most part.

    I would say explain you have a condition that causes flare-ups that impair your ability to do (x, y, z) or to need a chair to do (x, y, z) during a flare – however you want to put it. I don’t think your choice of words matters that much. Many autoimmune diseases feature such intermittent, but debilitating symptoms; i don’t think it’s that weird. if you are up for educating (and many kids probably are curious, a good chunk of them are probably interested in becoming a healthcare provider of sorts, so there is likely a genuine/innocent interest. Plus, kids this age while highly intelligent in some ways are all on a different page are still learning – so I would be try to be less “offended” when it’s students but also you don’t need to feel the need to hold back criticism as much as you might with say, an full-fledged adult who oughtta know better.

  122. Ms Fieryworth*

    I sometimes need to use mobility devices. Coworkers and acquaintances that don’t know me well often ask if I’m ok or what happened, and it can be annoying on days when I’m foggy. Here’s what I do.

    When I don’t feel like talking about it: Yep, it’s just a thing I need sometimes. How are you doing?
    If pressed: Not really up to talking about it, can we catch up later? (spoiler, later never comes).
    When I’m ok with saying more: I have a chronic medical condition and some days I need mobility devices, particularly when going long distances or in new environments. I don’t use them everyday, but when I need them I really need them.

    And for all those ‘well meaning people’ out there- when you point out someone’s mobility devices as being ‘other’ by asking ‘what happened’ it shows your abelism as you see a change in ability as ‘something wrong’ instead of just something that is. Please think about that.

  123. Invisible Fish*

    “Are you on my health plan? I can only afford to go in network. Oh, you’re not a doctor? Then why are you asking?”

  124. EAB*

    I’d go with Capt Awkward approach, of ‘let it be awkward’: stare silently at the questioner, give it 5 sec, then say, ‘I beg your pardon?’ Or equivalent. It may sink in that it’s none of their business.
    ….if they persist, then pull out the rare disability card.
    The first part worked for me w nosy-parker church folks.

  125. Astral Debris*

    “Just having a flare-up, nothing to worry about!” Said cheerfully and matter-of-factly, then change the subject or keep going down the hallway.

    It’s really great that you want to educate people, and when you’re feeling up to it then you should totally do that! But give yourself permission to choose not to educate people about your condition when you’re not feeling up to it. It sounds like these are people you’re likely to run into again eventually, and when you do then you can casually bring it up and explain what was going on when they saw you in a wheelchair, if you want to do that.

  126. fhqwhgads*

    I don’t know that this would always work, but I do think it should give enough people pause. If someone asks what happened/what did you do/why are you in a wheelchair or any variant thereof, I think you should try to default to “it’s not very polite to ask that”. I know in some circumstances OP wanted to educate…but I think this is educational in a way, and easier to pull off with the brain fog than an actual explanation of the condition, which isn’t always practical anyway especially given the passing in hallway example. So if it were me, I’d probably go that route more often than not. I think in most cases shutting down the discussion is going to be the most efficient route.

  127. Kella*

    OP, I totally feel you on not having a concise answer for people. I also have a complicated disability and explaining it requires a conversation, not a sentence. I organize a weekly dance that I no longer dance at and I got so tired of explaining why that I wrote a blog post about it and sent it to my whole dance community. Now I just give people a business card for my blog whenever they ask.

    It sounds like you are doing okay explaining stuff to people when you trust them to receive it well and that the problem is mostly around rude people or quick abrupt interactions especially when you’re dealing with brain fog.

    For students or people you otherwise want to treat respectfully, I’d prepare a phrase like, “I’d be happy to tell you all about it another time. Ask me Monday” or whatever, or even just “Ask me again after class” which communicates that you are willing to talk about it but now isn’t a good time.

    For people you don’t care about, one of my favorite ways of responding to invasive questions is to flip them back on the person asking them. Hearing “What’s wrong with you?” and saying back, “What’s wrong with *you*” usually gets people to shut up pretty quick. Same for, “What happened to you?” and similar questions.

  128. Mia 52*

    It sounds like you’re dealing with it perfectly! My only advice is if you have a close person at work who you trust to disseminate info to just ask them to say to people “Hey XYZ uses a wheelchair sometimes for health reasons, if she needs something she’ll let us know so let’s not bug her with questions about it”

  129. Minimal Pear*

    I think everyone’s pretty much covered this, but I wanted to comment because I have dysautonomia too! (Specifically POTS in my case.) I was just thinking about this kind of situation, in the context of hopefully becoming a teacher, because I’m thinking of getting a wheelchair soon.
    OP, your answers all sound really good already, and I think you’re handling it well. I have similar problems with my intermittent cane usage (both for POTS and some joint problems) and I generally go with pretty similar answers, too. I’ve definitely gotten “oh no, what did you do to yourself!?” a few times–notably from a therapist once, in our first meeting, and boy did that end up being a red flag–and a slightly chilly “nothing” usually makes people back off.
    One thing that happens with me is since I’m so used to rattling off my medical info to doctors/friends who just invited me to go do something that’ll involve a lot of standing, I tend to overshare. Especially if I’m caught off-balance or brain-foggy! I don’t know if this is something you struggle with, but I’ve known other disabled people who have had the same problem. (Which I think is compounded by the general idea that we owe our personal medical info to anyone who asks, and if we’re not open about it, it’s because we’re the rude ones. In my experience, it’s a sadly widespread attitude.) So I guess I just wanted to bring that up as something to keep an eye on and bear in mind–that in a lot of circumstances, less information is better. I generally find that if a situation comes up where someone needs more details about my POTS, I can give them the details in the moment.
    In some situations, I’ve also had good luck addressing it up-front and saying that sometimes I need a cane, sometimes I don’t need anything, etc. It only works in certain situations, but then it prevents people from asking later. I also just tend to identify myself as openly disabled in most situations (at least once I’ve used my cane or needed to ask for an accommodation) and I think most people can follow the logic of she’s called herself disabled -> today she is using a cane and looking haggard -> oh that’s probably why.
    I know there are hundreds of comments already, but I hope this helps! Sorry for the rambling, I’m rather brain foggy at the moment due to some medical testing stuff.

    1. Minimal Pear*

      Oh and also, I don’t know how your dysautonomia manifests, but if it’s in the cardio realm, I’ve found that “I have a heart condition” shuts people up pretty quickly because it freaks them out. Probably a little mean of me, but I do find their reactions kind of funny. And it’s true, I do have a heart condition, and a pretty serious one at that! I have to be careful how I deploy it, though, since some people overreact.

      1. LW*

        Haha omg I know, technicallyyyy POTS isn’t a heart condition (for mine it manifests a lot in the circulatory system but my cardiologist is very clear with me that it’s not actually a *heart* issue) but it freaks people out enough that I use it sometimes lol.

  130. Tina*

    You don’t owe anyone an explanation of your medical condition. While sharing and educating can be powerful for teaching your community compassion and awareness, I wouldn’t expect anyone to be burdened with this. That said:

    1. If you have close colleagues who are willing to be allies/positive bystanders than can intervene, empower them to do this.

    2. As someone who had weight loss surgery and wasn’t willing to share with people outside my trusted circle, I was a fan of responding to nosy people with “is this a mutual sharing of weight and health or is this one-sided?” That usually got people to be more self aware of their intrusion without me looking like a total bitch and it having a negative impact on my professional reputation.

    More concerning for me is whether your job is actually required to and capable of providing accommodations. What you need and what your employer is capable of providing may be in conflict. Some thoughts and ideas as you navigate this:

    1. Is there another RD apartment that IS accessible? If so, can they swap you with that person? That would be a reasonable accommodation. To what degree does your apartment need charges? Are they simple changes like grab bars and removing lower cabinets (please make sure they cover any plumbing with insulation so you don’t bump or burn yourself!) or does it require an elevator or moving your apartment to a lower floor and converting student rooms into a new apartment? That may take substantially more time and resources (getting an engineer, putting it out to bid to contractors, and the construction time).

    2. How does duty work at your institution? Are you able to respond according to their crisis protocol? If not, the “reasonable accommodation” here could be changing your job since you can’t do a core part of the job if you can’t access students in their spaces. (For example, at my institution only half of our community is wheelchair accessible but we require staff to respond on site in certain emergencies because we need professional staff eyes on something and/or need them to do some kind of intervention with the space or residents.) If you found yourself in this situation, I’d recommend you be wary of being moved to a position that pays the same but doesn’t provide you with the career advancement opportunity. For example, if they keep your pay, but put you in a program assistant position and you’re only answering phones, that could be a dead end career. Negotiate for special projects (assessment, policy development, case management) that will allow you to progress in your career. Also be aware that RDs get free apartments and don’t have to pay taxes on it because the Department of Labor doesn’t consider it a true benefit since that housing is really for the benefit of the employer. If they re-assigned you, it’s possible you would lose the apartment/free housing and they would not be required to compensate you for this.

    I hope you are able to create or find an environment that better supports you and your health.

  131. Elm*

    I have found that students are far more understanding of both differences and boundaries than “real grown-ups” are. I don’t know if this is a college or boarding school situation, but if you want, you can hold a floor meeting to explain…or you can just tell them one on one if you’re having a foggy day (depending on how the fog affects you, of course)! I know this is totally different than your life, but during the Adderall shortage last year, I had to do both of these things in an educational setting. My brain fog when I’m off of it long term and also working long hours (13+ at the time!) means I sometimes can’t understand words being said and often can’t remember things well. Likely wouldn’t have gone over well with some of my peers, but the students were so understanding and helpful.

    For the adults who are actually rude, I say stare them down until they realize they were rude, or ask them to repeat themselves because you know you must have misheard them.

    What concerns me the most is that the building is not ADA compliant. If you have an HR, please bring it up to them. If you don’t want them to think it’s something for YOU (I understand how awkward this conversation may be!), mention that now that you have a wheelchair, you see the challenges caused and worry about future residents or friends and family thereof not being able to function in the space. It may be worth bringing the relevant parts of the code with you. Any reasonable HR or boss will listen and attempt to make the (often legally required) accomodations–even in a private school setting (which I’ve also worked in).

  132. JessP*

    I like to use “Nothing to worry about! Just some chronic stuff flaring up” in conjunction with a subject change when I’m not up for going into detail.

    1. JessP*

      Oh this is a great point!

      I have two wheelchairs—one with a cup holder and bumper stickers, and one totally clean—and get significantly fewer questions in the one that looks more lived-in.

      1. JessP*

        This nested way wrong, but I think the idea comes through. It was meant to be responding to the suggestion of decorating mobility aids.

  133. Anon Here*

    It sounds like the university could be doing a lot more to support you. The building isn’t ADA compliant so students and colleagues help you? That’s not fair.

    It also sounds like you’re dealing with a lot of social situations at times when you’re not feeling up for it (days when you’re out sick and having brain fog), and that you don’t have other options. If this is the case, I think the university could give you more personal space, and ways to avoid people when you’re feeling too sick to talk to anyone. Just as options to have.

    I would definitely approach them about this. If there is a Disability Services office, maybe they would be a good starting point. Even if they only work with students, they’re probably aware of the accomodations that are possible on campus, and could support you in advocating for ADA compliance. They might also have some guidance on what to say when talking to other offices (like HR).

    1. anomalez*

      Yep – came here to say that, OP, I am mad on your behalf that your residence hall is not ADA compliant. That just doesn’t seem right. They need to get on the ball!

  134. OyHiOh*

    My sibling and I have symptoms of dysautonomia.

    I’m a writer with a background in customer service and theater. My symptoms are on the very mild end of the spectrum so I’ve opted for the two sentence explanation – when I need to chug a sport drink and lie down with my feet up a wall for 20 minutes – “I have an autoimune disorder that makes me sensitive to environmental and internal triggers. Sometimes I need to change my behavior to work and feel my best.”

    My sibling’s symptoms are much more significant – if not for the LW’s job description, I would have thought this was my sibling’s story. They use a wheelchair some days. They also use a service dog on some days. I’m not sure how they answer questions about various types of mobility, but they also live in a small community and their spouse has a highly visible job – it’s quite possible they simply don’t get questioned because “everyone knows,” at least in general form if not the detail.

  135. Civil discourse*

    I am partially disabled from an accident 25 years ago and on “bad leg days” I use a forearm crutch. I mention it immediately when I introduce myself when teaching a class or seminar of more than 2 days length (which I do frequently) and when I have my first one on one chat with new hires in our department. I simply say “Don’t worry about it if you see me with a crutch one day – I was in an accident long ago and some days my leg acts up. It’s no big deal and it’s been this way for 25 years” with a smile. In the seminar situation it saves a lot of time answering individual questions in the hallway (crutch now/no crutch yesterday). In my home workplace it eliminates surprises and other people worrying about what to say/not say. At a later date if we have an extra 5 minutes in the break room and the new coworker really wants to know….I will be fine with providing the “I was the sewer plant manager and fell 12 feet into my own sewer on Christmas Eve and had 4 reconstructive surgeries” story complete with “circles and arrows and 8 by 10 color glossy photographs” (as my family lovingly describes my well practiced narration of the events). It works well for me.

    1. Civil discourse*

      Yes LOL that was a joke…I don’t really keep photographs of my break-my-leg-and-restretch-it torture device around. But by the time I start off with “my employee called to say that someone had dumped 4000 gallons of laundry detergent in the sewer and there’s crap-scented foam blowing onto cars on the nearby streets” ,,,and end up with “and I had to turn the ends of these screws every day to pull the ends of my bones apart”…its almost as long as Alice’s Restaurant and just about as crazy

  136. Flash Bristow*

    Turn it back on them. I just say “oh thats normal for me, how are you doing today?” or better, “why do you ask?!”

    And if they try to splutter an answer like “oh I haven’t seen you use one before” try “I haven’t seen you in that top before either! Have a good day!”

    If they say something along the lines of “I just wondered what caused it?” you could either go with “oh, it’s a long term thing” and change the subject, or if trapped (e.g. in a cab or another situation) my favourite response is to look all excited and say “Ooh! Are we exchanging medical histories? You first then!”

    Don’t be afraid to leave long awkward silences, or suddenly have to read a text on your phone, etc. It’s none of their business!

    1. Flash W Bristow*

      Meant to say, if in a bind, just the bored “oh, it’s a long term thing”, followed by silence as you engross yourself in something else, works in most situations. Has for me anyway.

  137. Flash W Bristow*

    Meant to say, if in a bind, just the bored “oh, it’s a long term thing”, followed by silence as you engross yourself in something else, works in most situations. Has for me anyway.

  138. StaceyIzMe*

    For people who just blab out an awkward question, you can ignore it. But really, I think that anyone who has managed to make it past their fifth year of life has been exposed to differences on some level. You be doing the larger world a favor if you nipped this obnoxious tendency to pry in the bud. Let whatever question they ask hang there… after whatever pause feels suitable, move on to whatever work related or other appropriate topic you had in mind. For the persistently clueless, you can add a “why would you ask me that…?”/ “why would you say that…?”/ “why do you need to know…?”. People who are just a little clueless may get defensive, but they shouldn’t. If they’re remotely decent human beings, it won’t take very long for the moral calculus to play out in their minds and they’ll conclude that “yes, Virginia… people episodically use wheelchairs/ walkers/ inhalers/ special pillows for their tailbones/ glasses for their eyes/ sign language/ translation software and all kinds of other accommodations to get through any given day. For the obstinately clueless or merely arrogant- let their inquiry be their problem. It might even be mildly entertaining to watch them try to justify their inappropriately personal questions…

  139. Media Monkey*

    there’s a UK late night chat show called “the Last Leg” which started during the Paralympics one year. 2 of the 3 presenters have disabilities (Adam Hills has a prosthetic leg and Alex Brooker has arm deformities and a prosthetic leg). they have a segment called Is it OK? where they talk about whether it is OK to ask certain questions (I think it started with Is it OK to ask Paralympic athletes what their disability is). they have a lot of clips on You Tube and might give you some ideas for snarky replies if you want them! it’s also an excellent show with great presenters who just happen to be disabled. the ongoing show is nothing to do with disability.

  140. WannaAlp*

    You could try “What did you just say?” as a response, in an attempt to get them to reconsider whether they really did want to say that. The tone of your response could be adapted depending on how rude they were being.

  141. agnes*

    I think there are always people who will be too intrusive and they don’t limit themselves to being nosy just with people who have disabilities. For any nosy person, no matter what the subject, just say, “I’ve shared all I want to about this”
    and change the subject. It really does work.

  142. Keymaster of Gozer*

    My sense of humour is fortunately well known at work so I often got away with “decided to have a weekend fighting dragons. Learnt it wasn’t a good idea” for the times I had to use my cane.

    I do get significantly ruder when complete strangers demand knowledge OR make assumptions. Such as last month when a woman in the shop told her child (while pointing at me) that “this is what happens when you don’t look before crossing the road!”
    I said “no, this is what happens when you’re rude like your mother”

    (My spinal injury is from a serious car crash. My arthritis is just my immune system knocking several bells out of me because it has lousy aim!)

    1. Keymaster of Gozer*

      On a serious note though, a few things I’ve found useful at work:

      If you’re a fairly close-knit small team then just saying “it’s a flare-up. When it happens I need the chair/cane/device” can suffice. Maybe with a “I don’t need any help at the moment so no worries”

      Larger teams, or teams with people you’re not close to or fond of I’ve had good results with an all-team email just laying out that sometimes you need the chair/cane/device, it’s just one of those things you have to deal with in your life and you’ll let people know if you need any assistance.

      Obviously you know your audience better than we do! I usually include a few geeky jokes about bugs in my operating system but I’ve worked in IT for 20 years :)

      (I do NOT like talking about my disabilities much. It’s lengthy and in the case of my spine related to an incident that gave me PTSD. It’s very hard to explain the details of why I am disabled without triggering those memories)

  143. Ejane*

    I have a service dog and a psychiatric disability. I don’t ‘look’ disabled–my selective mutism rarely flares up and I’ve had panic attacks so frequently for so long that I basically just get quiet and space out.
    I’m outgoing, social, articulate, conventionally attractive… it throws people off. Every time I go out with my good boy, I get questions: Who are you training him for? How long has he been training? What’s he for?
    (Mind you, this dog is 70lbs and CLEARLY not a puppy. There isn’t a ‘training’ patch anywhere on his vest. He’s entirely trained for public access.)
    I have CPTSD; I really don’t want to talk about my childhood with strangers.
    I deal with invasive questions in one of two ways: immediate launch into graphic detail, or just stare at the person who asks. If I’m in a good mood, I’ll say something polite and quick to end the conversation.

    More helpful/relevant to you, though is this:

    I did discover that Etsy has a handful of very clever (and some snarky) service dog patches among all the standards. My favorite says something along the lines of “Why yes I would love to share my entire medical history with you.” If you hang a bag off the back of your wheelchair, or something else made of fabric, you could attach some patches to it, which the students would definitely notice and pay attention to. You could then also point to your back if you’re very fed up with things and someone asks a rude question.
    Laminated cards, as many have mentioned, are also handy.

    You could also check out some of the CI youtubers; I know that Jessica Kellgren-Fozard and ChronicallyJacquie have videos related to mobility assists and how wheelchair=/=your legs don’t work. Having those in your back pocket might be helpful.

    1. Ejane*

      Worth nothing that Jacquie (who unfortunately passed away earlier this year) also had dysautonomia (plus POTS and ED…4?).

  144. CripperName*

    I have MS which is not visible most of the time and I only occasionally use a mobility aid (cane) because occasionally my balance is for crap and I will either randomly tip over or trip on the lines on the lino. I stumbled through explanations a few times, fielded the dirty stares from folks parking in accessible parking (Yes, I have a tag– can’t always walk far, sometimes can).

    When the question is “Hey are you ok” and yes, I’m not deaf, I can tell when it’s kindly meant, I can pull off a “Yup, just a bad day for staying upright!” and get on with things. When it’s “What happened to YOU?” in a nosy parker kind of way from a complete stranger? Eh. Roll with whatever comes out of your head, really. Including a long stare and passing on by.

    (When I was 15, I took a header off my bicycle and ended up really visibly dinged up. Black eye, half my face skinned, road rash everywhere…. After a long week of gasps and What Happened To YOU? we ran into one of my mom’s church lady friends in the grocery and she uttered the fateful words and me being a smartmouth and very, very tired of the question said “My mother beat me.”

    This was 1985, right about the time that the press was starting to air all sorts of horrible child abuse exposes and…that poor lady. Her face.

    My mother gave me a long look, and said clearly and precisely– “Not. Yet.”)

    1. Janet*

      Too funny. (Sorry about your accident–yikes!–and your illness. I have a chronic disability that is limiting my mobility and it sucks.)

  145. Nicole*

    I have ongoing issues that occasionally mean that if I want to do something that requires me to be on my feet a lot, I need to use a wheelchair. I once had someone grab my leg and start praying for me….I was too shocked to do anything in the moment, but after the fact my BF said I should have just announced “It’s a miracle, I’m cured!” and stood up and walked away, lol.

    Can you ask your school to take over some of the burden? If you’re getting a lot of inappropriate questions, it might be worth suggesting they hold training for staff.

    1. adobbratz*

      Oooft. I got prayed for one time. I was volunteering at an event and had my cane with me. The woman leaned out of her car and grabbed my arm to pray for my healing. Still have the fibro, but I liked her self-confidence:):):) So very awkward.

  146. RubyMoon*

    I get around a similar issue (cane, not chair, though) by saying “I felt like I needed the extra support today, ” or “Just a lousy mobility ( or leg, for those I am closer with) day!” It helps me to be matter-of-fact about it, I find it often shuts down the million other questions that usually follow.

  147. Fluff*

    Am late to this one – for the hive mind on this topic

    What do you recommend as a comment if the you are the um.. tactless person? I have been surprised by a co-worker newly having an aid (or insert new appearing issue here) and the crap leaves my mouth too fast. I end up awkwardly stammering “sorry, will mind own business” or something about now wanting to be nosey, while groaning inwardly as I hope I did not totally step in it, etc.

    What’s a good line for the dang-ot-that-came-out-of-my-mouth-and-I-cant-suck-it-back-in event when you are the one who blurbs out stuff?

    And for the record, I have a disability. At times, I need full leg braces and crutches and other times I can actually do acro. It’s one of those flaring things. So having a disability in no way keeps the sh**t from coming out of my mouth to someone else. Dang it.

  148. LW*

    Hey everyone! The response to this has been overwhelming. I really appreciate the support and the lively discussion!!! I’m still working on reading through the OVER 500 COMMENTS, but just know that this has been really helpful already. Thank you!!!

  149. adobbratz*

    I have hypermobility spectrum disorder and fibromyalgia and sometimes need to use a cane/various visible braces. Brain fog is part of my symptoms too, and I also work in a volunteer-dependent nonprofit. It’s hard when well-meaning people ask the questions, and harder when you know it’s sheer judgy noseyness. Personally, I think it’s okay to serve a little salt to the latter group, don’t get me started about when folks tell me “You’re too young,” “have you tried x therapy,” or “wait till you’re my age.” I often give them the response, (gleaned either here from Alison, or from the regularly brilliant Captain Awkward), “What an odd thing to say!” Return awkwardness to sender!

  150. NotTheSameAaron*

    Have you considered using a cane or staff when you don’t need a wheelchair to accustom them to the idea that you have a disability?

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