Dear Imprudence: Don’t Talk About Us, Talk With Us

A recent Dear Abby had a question from an employer with a disabled staffer who wants the staffer to feel comfortable at work:

Dear Abby: I run a successful restaurant business. One of my key employees, “Zayne,” has Tourette’s syndrome. He has been a loyal and valuable waiter for many years.

When customers ask what is wrong with him because he makes noises or hits himself, how should I respond? Most of our regular customers understand his condition and ignore it. However, we do get the occasional socially inept customer who gawks or asks rude questions.

I would defend and protect Zayne. He knows people ask about him, and if they question him, he tells them about his condition. What’s the best way to respond politely to people who don’t have a clue? —Zayne’s Boss in the Pacific Northwest

Abby nailed it in her response:

Dear Boss: If you are asked about Zayne, tell the questioner, “That’s Zayne. He has been a valued employee here for many years. If you want an answer to your question, ask him.”

I liked her response for several reasons. The first was that it’s extremely common for people to talk about (and speculate about) people with disabilities instead of just approaching them directly. It would be nice if we lived in a world where people didn’t feel it was entirely appropriate to ask questions about someone with a disability, but at the very least, if people feel compelled to ask those questions anyway, they should be asking the disabled person, not someone else. And they should be prepared for a response that isn’t necessarily polite, either. If people say ‘oh but I’m too shy to ask directly’ then one might reasonably ask why they think the question needs to be asked at all.

I also like that although she didn’t explicitly spell it out, the framing of her response very much put the kibosh on the ‘defend and protect’ idea put forward in the letter. We don’t need to be ‘defended and protected.’ We need to live in a world where we aren’t objects of curiosity and speculation. Since we don’t live in that world, asking people to interact directly with us instead of around us is a good first step.

‘Defending’ us doesn’t address the social attitudes behind disability speculation. It reduces the problem to a personal one, rather than a larger structural issue; the problem isn’t that one person with disabilities attracts curiosity, it is that members of society as a whole think it’s appropriate to query the people who work with/around a disabled person about that person’s disabilities and that these same people won’t interact directly with the person they are asking about.

The critical thing she left out: She could have suggested that Zayne’s Boss ask Zane how he would prefer to have these situations dealt with.

5 Comments

  1. I agree. When I’m with my boyfriend, he is sometimes asked questions about me. He always directs these people to me. I like that, even though I don’t like answering personal questions and am not blunt enough to just say “that’s none of your business”.

  2. I think Abby’s response is the worst possible answer here, because she is telling him to direct his customers to ask one of his staff impertinent and possibly harassing questions (particularly if they are phrased rudely or insultingly when put to the manager, they are unlikely to be any more polite when addressed to Zayne). They could ask Zayne how he wants them to respond, but it would be better to just answer the question rather than direct them to their employee. The person asking isn’t his partner, but his employee, and as this person is employing someone in a public-serving role, I do think they owe Zayne some protection, much as from aggression, violence or sexual harassment from customers.

  3. I gotta disagree with Abby and you here.
    First of all, I agree w/a lot of what Indigo Jo said.
    Second of all, I get so damn tired of people asking me about my disabilities. Well, literally and figuratively, because I have severe exhaustion. When I am with friends who really know and understand my disabilities, it is such a relief when they answer the questions so I don’t have to. They can stop all the pestering quite nicely with some short answers, and it takes the burden off me.
    I think the best answer would be for Abby to have said, “Have you talked to Zayne about what HE wants you to do?”
    Maybe Zayne would say, yes, send them to me, I’ll answer.
    Maybe he’d say, “Please tell them I have Tourette’s so I don’t have to deal with their questions and can get on with my job.”
    Maybe he’d tell his boss, “Please say, ‘He’s an employee, and it’s none of my business how he behaves if it doesn’t interfere with his job, which it doesn’t. If you have any problems with your food being served cold or any of our waitstaff getting your order wrong, then by all means, let me know. We hope you enjoy your meal. Thank you for your patronage.'”
    So, 1 point to Abby for recognizing that PWDs should be spoken to directly, but minus 1 point for not telling the letter-writer that THEY are the one who should speak to the PWD themselves instead of writing to her about it.

  4. I have to agree with Indigo Jo and Sharon Wachsler. Asking Zayne how he wants the boss answer is a good idea as well but it doesn’t change the fact that creating a safe work environment for employees IS the boss’s responsibility. It would be no different if the customer was asking for the employee’s phone number or other personal information – the boss should tell them to mind their own business and go away. It’s about safety, and there are usually policies in place about protecting the privacy of employees.

  5. I aggree with the comments here. As a Little Person, I get tired of people asking me intrusive questions-particularly from adults. A child I can understand. I have gotten to the point were I just want to say “Just Google it!” Really! You’ll find all the information you need to know there.

    I can relate to what the waiter is probably going through although we don’t get to know his perspective here. A similiar thing happened to me years ago when one of my old supervisors thought it was up to me (meaning asking the people that came to the place for services where I worked) to see if they were okay (comfortable) with me. Given my role there at the place the people had no other choice but to be comfortable if they wanted to be helped. Looking back I think the supervisor was more uncomfortable with me than the people that actually came for services (at least they never vocalized anything different to me anyways).