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.