YOU ARE NOT ENTITLED TO DISABLED PEOPLE’S MEDICAL INFORMATION

People are curious about what they don’t know. I get it. I’m curious to know what a wooly mammoth feels like, and how people can read my emotions so accurately just by the way I move my face. [How does one raised eyebrow say so much?]

But there are some things, no matter how curious you are about, that are simply not appropriate to ask a stranger. And particularly, a disabled one.

“Were you born like that?”

The question came from a man sitting across from me on the city bus as I was on my way home from university. I was absorbed in my phone, tracking what stops we were passing so I didn’t miss mine, and more than that, I didn’t think this abrupt question was directed to me.

“What?” I said quietly. No one else had responded.

“Were you born like that?”

I didn’t reply. It was safer than anything that might have emerged from my mouth. But I knew what he meant. Had I always been disabled?

That encounter was years ago, but it was by no means the only time I’ve been asked that question. And the unfortunate reality is that the occurrence of strangers asking after disabled people’s medical information is ongoing, and far too frequent.

Disability happens for any number of reasons, and often, these origin stories are painful and difficult to talk about. I’m fairly open with mine: I became blind due to retinoblastoma, cancer of the eyes, when I was six years old. Both of my eyes were enucleated and I now have prosthetics, painted with the same hazel that I got from my mother.

I’m open about this part of my history. But I choose when and with whom to be open about it. And let me tell you that it is not with a stranger on the bus.

But there are people who became disabled in other ways, such as tragic accidents, attempted suicide, violence, and many more, things that are not appropriate to discuss. Maybe it brings up the trauma. Maybe they don’t want to relive what happened because it’s too painful. And maybe, they just don’t want to talk about it. Because, believe it or not, disabled people do talk about things other than disability.

It is their right to choose how they respond. And that reason also doesn’t have to be disclosed.

There is nothing more private than someone’s medical history and current condition. I’ve never once encountered an able-bodied person on the bus get asked this question.

But every disabled person that I know has been asked at least once, and often in a very insensitive way. Just because we are disabled does not mean that anyone other than the disabled person and their doctor gets to know that information.

At this point, it isn’t even curiosity about the unknown as it is plain and simple nosiness, and a good dose of ableism. If someone believes a stranger’s medical details are theirs to know and asks with no regard for privacy or consent, the disabled person has just been dehumanized and reduced to an object by which to glean information that to be frank, isn’t theirs to know in the first place.

Now, if someone asks me with genuine kindness and interest about my cancer history or my blindness, I’m often more than happy to answer. There’s a difference between curious and nosy, and if one can ask and still respect that what I divulge is my choice, then I’m all for it.

I said earlier that I’ve never seen a non-disabled person get asked so callously for their medical information. You just don’t do that — it’s an unspoken, societal rule of etiquette.

Why then, are these standards tossed aside in the face of a disabled person? When did we become things that exist to indulge and satisfy a stranger at the expense of our privacy?

Our information is free for the taking. It’s rude if we don’t give a satisfactory answer. We’ve offended the asker — how dare we refuse their request?

The entitlement is staggering. The line between personal information and public knowledge is so easily crossed and it both infuriates me and makes me laugh. How, in the 21st-century, have we gotten to a place where people feel entitled to the private information of strangers, simply to satisfy their curiosity?

Disabled people are not freaks of nature. We are not part of a circus display for you to stare at, poke and prod.

We are people. Yes, we have disabilities. But it is not your job, your right or your place to know about it unless we give our full and enthusiastic consent.

So the next time you ask me “were you born like that?” I’m going to take the advice of my mentor and respond with, “You mean gorgeous? Yes, I was born like that.”

A BOY BROKE MY WHITE CANE AND DIDN’T EVEN NOTICE — A MINI MEMOIR

A true story from my middle school days, I’m sharing the following story because I want to raise awareness of a very real issue that many people don’t consider:

Never touch a disabled person’s mobility tool. Whether that be a guide dog, a cane [as in this story], a wheelchair or any other type of mobility aid, it is for no one’s use except by the person it’s intended to support. And that is because it is not simply a piece of equipment or technology, but it is their access, their freedom, independence, mobility, safety and their means of communicating with and moving through the world.

But when that freedom and independence is compromised, it can wreak havoc and put that person in challenging and potentially dangerous situations. And more importantly, it takes away their autonomy.

There’s the moral of the story, even though we haven’t gotten to the story yet. So, without further ado…


I’m in the seventh-grade wing of my middle school, the halls blissfully clear and quiet now that class is in session. I’m on my way to the resource room, where I frequently work on projects one-on-one with my braillist. It’s just easier sometimes, especially in math and science when I need more specific adaptations or explanations of sighted concepts that are hard to understand. I don’t mind; anything to get out of a classroom of kids I’m not friends with.

The resource room is on the opposite side of the school, up a flight of stairs, down a ramp and past several twists and turns. But I know it forward and backward. I can walk it with my eyes closed, I think to myself, and I smile sardonically at my own blind joke.

And it’s a good thing, too, since I’m still in the hall by Mrs. George’s classroom when a boy slams into me, nearly knocking me to the ground. Where did he come from? There was nothing but a split second of pounding footfalls before the impact.

But before I can say anything, he’s gone.
I regain my balance, and notice that the quiet of the hall has returned as quickly as it was interrupted. I shake it off as best I can and grab my cane to begin walking to the resource room. But something is wrong. Very, very wrong.

The end of my cane, which has a rolling tip on it that rolls smoothly as I sweep my cane ahead of me from right to left, isn’t there. Instead of the smooth, bumping sound reverberating from the linoleum, there’s only an eerie nothingness. The tip isn’t touching the ground. It’s then that I reach forward, trailing my hand from the rubber grip top of the cane downward.

And then I see it. My cane is broken. Snapped in two like a twig. A carbon graphite twig. The lower half hangs limply from the string which is normally thread invisibly through the cane, holding it together.

I can’t use my cane like this! It’s physically impossible. And without a cell phone, or anyone in the hall, and no way to tell my braillist what’s happened, I take a step forward and am thankful I was taught how to keep myself safe as a kid before I got a cane. I hold my cane in the crook of my arm, and put one hand up to protect my face and the other in front of my belly button, and I start walking.

I shuffle through the halls–careful not to lift my foot in case of missing a drop off and POOF, down I go–up the stairs, down the ramps, and listen for the echo of the openness where the hallways intersect, and turn. I don’t pass anyone which I’m grateful for because I know this must look weird. What’s the blind girl doing now?

I make it to the resource room unscathed, my broken cane tucked under my arm. I work on my science project, then my braillist guides me out to the parking lot to meet my mom when the bell rings.

Then, we buy a new cane.

A WOMAN SAID SHE WOULD HAVE HAD AN ABORTION IF SHE KNEW HER DAUGHTER WOULD BE BLIND — A MINI MEMOIR

Disclaimer: This story deals with the subject of abortion. There is no explicit or graphic content, but if reading about abortion is difficult or triggering for you, I’d encourage you to think carefully about whether you want to continue reading or choose something else that I’ve written.
This is a true story that happened while I was in my second year of university. By telling this story, I am speaking up for the unborn children whose lives are ended due to disability. I am not seeking to debate or argue, so please leave such comments out of the comment section. Thank you.


My heart pounds and the tears sting my eyes. My partner reaches for me and I collapse into him. The room is quiet as the other pro-life club members look on in stunned silence, watching for my reaction. But I can’t react yet. I can only hold on to my partner for dear life. Life that had unknowingly hung in the balance for a girl just like me.

I meet her on the way to my health class as I crunch the leaves with a childlike joy. Upon seeing my white cane, she says, “I have a blind daughter. Can I ask you a question?”

“Absolutely! I’m Rhianna,” I say, offering her my hand.

“My daughter is only nine now, but I want her to have a good education. Seeing you here, I presume it works, but I don’t know how. Will she be able to do university?” She sounds both hopeful and apprehensive.

I want to hug her. She doesn’t know the ins and outs of post-secondary education with a disability, but who does until they’re faced with it head-on? I’m just so happy that she’s taking the time to find out.

We stand on the sidewalk, students bustling past as I detail my university experience — how I receive electronic textbooks, the accommodations provided for students for disabilities and the support offered by the Disability Resource Center on campus.

“Thank you,” she says, a genuine relief in her voice.

“No problem. Happy to help.” I say, and I run to my kinesiology lecture for which I am now almost late.

An hour later, in the pro-life club meeting, I excitedly relay my conversation with the woman with the blind daughter. “She doesn’t know much about blindness, but she’s determined to learn what she needs to for her daughter,” I say.

It makes me think of my parents, not knowing anything of disability until their four-year-old daughter gets diagnosed with bilateral eye cancer and then all are thrust into this new, unknown world. And with everything new and unfamiliar facing their family, they did the best they could—which was pretty great. I smile. My parents are awesome.

Valerie enters the room with a summary of her conversations around campus about the student body’s perspectives on the pro-life/pro-choice debate.

“I talked to this woman who has a blind daughter,” she says.

“I met her,” I say. “We had such a good conversation.”

“She told me that if she had known her daughter would be blind, she would have had an abortion.”

The silence is like thunder, but it can’t compare to my heart. How can this be? She would have aborted her own daughter? She was so determined to give her daughter a good life, yet she would have had an abortion and taken away that life by choice? And all because she was blind?

My mind starts spinning. Would my parents have aborted me had they known I would be diagnosed with cancer and be blind for the rest of my life? I know in my heart the answer is no, but the thought makes me sick. My parents may not have made that choice, but others have, and still might.

And now, all I want to do is hold this nine-year-old girl and tell her that she is enough, that she’s loved and she will have a good life.

After the semester, I leave the pro-life club, not because my position changed but because I’m not in a place where I’m ready to have these conversations and hear someone’s brutal honesty about people’s perceptions of the value of life, and particularly, disabled lives. Because I know that woman’s view is all too common, and it won’t be the last time I hear the same sentiments.

I just hope that woman’s daughter never has to hear it, especially from her own mother.