Injury versus disability

I have an injury – animal bites on my face, forearms and hands from a skirmish with a feral cat outside my office building. I’ve got quite a black eye with puncture wounds on my cheek, so my injuries are immediately visible. I’ve also got severe swelling in my left index finger so I can’t bend it or use it for anything, and bumping it against something sends extremely sharp pains through my hand that last for about half an hour.

I am having a fair amount of trouble with it. I can’t open jars or plastic packaging or use a can opener. I can’t hold the steering wheel very well with my left hand. I’m right handed so I can still use a pen and hold a fork and spoon, but my typing is totally jacked up – I can use the other fingers on my hand if I keep the injured finger extended, but that makes my hand go in an unfamiliar position and the rest of the muscles start cramping and aching if I do it for long, making me rely primarily on hunt n peck typing with my right hand. (I usually type over 120 words per minute, so this significantly slows me down.)

When people observe or hear about these functional impairments, they keep saying to me “oh well thank goodness this will heal. Imagine how it would be if you permanently lost the use of your finger!” and “well at least your face won’t be that wasy forever. Let’s hope it doesn’t scar.” They seem to regard these temporary injuries as a disability simulation of sorts and are reassuting me that I won’t continue to be this impaired or have this reduced functionality only because my injuries will heal.

I, on the other hand, feel that if these injuries were permanent disabilities, I’d have a lot easier time dealing with them. The problems I’m having are largely because it is a new situation for me and my habits and unconscious behaviours are all based on my assumption that my left index finger works fine. I haven’t had any time to develop the mental awareness or the physical abilities to compensate for the problems with that finger – if the other muscles in my left hand were more used to typing without that finger, I’m sure I’d be able to type more quickly and without as much pain in my left hand. Similarly, if my brain could remember that bumping left index finger leads to extreme pain, I wouldn’t have banged it against the car door every single time and I’d buy a purse with more organization capacity so I didn’t have to dig through it with both hands to find anything.

This isn’t to say that having this injury be permanent wouldn’t have long-term effects on my functional capacity. It just means that the functional effects of my temporary injury are in no way indicative of my functioning or my abilities were this a permanent disability. And that having this injury doesn’t teach me anything about what it would be like to have this disability.

The one aspect that has been eye opening for me is the demonstration of how entitled people feel to talk to you about visible injuries or disabilities. My finger isn’t that noticeable and I’m wearing long sleeves because of the weather, so only my facial injuries are visible – and boy are they visible. Even when wearing sunglasses to cover the worst of the bruised and swollen eye, the puncture wounds on my cheek are prominent. And in the day and a half since I was injured, I have been asked to explain “what’s up with my face” by virtually every stranger I’ve encountered. So much so that I’ve already started making up stories (my favorite: “I was being attacked by a vampire but I managed to deflect him so he bit my cheek instead of my neck.”). The feeling that my body is fodder for them to gawk at and demand explanations for is new to me, as my disabilities are usually not visible and I’m used to passing in public. While I don’t pretend this temporary experience in any way lets me know what it would be like to live as a person with a permanent visible disability, this is the only aspect of my injury experience that I feel is at all relevant to understanding the experience of disability.

17 thoughts on “Injury versus disability

  1. I wonder if the people asking about your face think you’re in a domestic violence situation?

    Although even if that were the case I’m not sure why they’d think you’d want to open up to a stranger about it.

  2. Gnatalby: If they do think it’s from domestic violence, then they probably feel they must ask, because if that is the case and they just let that person walk by, then someone is in a terrible situation *and they did nothing about it, when they were right there and maybe they could have made a difference* and such. Nevermind whether or not someone would want to open up to strangers.

    However, that’s just guesswork. They might all just be very rude and intrusive and feel they have some kind of right to an explanation. Or have a mix of reasons.

    My entire face below my eyes was swollen and bruised after I had a jaw surgery. Most of my face was about 2 times its normal size and blue, red, green and all kinds of colours. I got loads and loads of stares, but the only person to remark on it was someone who recognised where they were from, and he asked me if doctor [insert name here] was still the one doing the surgeries. I don’t know if most people also figured it was the result of some hospital procedure, or if they just mind their own business more here in general.

  3. I’ve heard from several people with disabilities that are visible that they’ve experienced the same thing, strangers in public asking for an explanation or offering unsolicited assistance. It’s an odd phenomenon that people feel free to ask a stranger about themselves. It’s very common but difficult for me to understand why people would do that.

  4. A mutual friend of ours once somewhat-obliviously asked me about some visible scarring on my leg. For whatever reason, I had mentally prepared myself for this — I knew I was going to be wearing a short skirt to the event we were attending, and in my limited number of interactions I’d had with him I’d picked up the vibe that he might ask first without considering that it might be prying. So I told him I’d been attacked by a guy with a hook. He then realized they were probably from self-injury, looked embarassed and didn’t ask any more questions. I didn’t really mean to embarass him, but I thought it might be a good lesson about not asking people you don’t know very well things like, in your case, “What’s up with your face??” In my case, I feel like maybe there’s a silent understanding between cutters or former cutters that allows us to recognize the scars but not pry, try to suss out in ways other than invasive questions whether the person is in an OK mental state…

  5. Maggie, I think those of us who do or have self-harmed know what it is and not just the myths that it’s a way to be all dramatic and get attention and it’s like a fad or some bullshit. It’s a way to cope with internal pain and shame and all the things we can’t talk about. It’s a way to stay alive through all the things that are trying to kill you.

  6. I have a scar on my chest from having a catheter when I was a kid. It’s about an inch long and shows when I wear anything low cut and people always ask about it, and they always ask the same way: “What did you do, try to kill yourself?”

    Well if I *had* what makes you think I’d want to discuss it with you?

    @Norah: I’m generally opposed to strangers questioning you about your health, even if they suspect something hinky is going on (unless you see someone harming another person like, on the street, in which case, by all means, offer your support to the victim!). It seems like it’s just a way to make the asker feel better even if the other person is made uncomfortable.

    In what scenario would “what happened to your face” lead to a confession of violence at home and a request for help? Maybe if the person is a child and you are a teacher, but other than that, no. Frankly even if the person being asked is a victim of abuse, it’s up to them to decide who, when, and where to disclose this information, not up to like, dude on the street.
    .-= Gnatalby´s last blog ..Sectionals =-.

  7. i have had one person approach me and explicitly (and carefully) ask if i needed domestic violence resources, but the majority ask it with a sense of excitement, like they’re going to get a juicy story. like it’s a potential source of titillation or entertainment for them.

    i’ve already developed two alternate answers, one of which clearly says “fuck off and don’t ask me any more questions” – “i was attacked by a vampire but managed to deflect the bites to my face.”

    it is somewhat ironic that the people who are sensitive and who i’d be willing to discuss it with are the ones least likely to ask about it because they have that understanding that there’s a difference between checking in with a person and sensationalizing their injuries for your own entertainment.

  8. abby jean- if you didn’t get my tweets, i am so glad you are OK. rotten cat! *offers hugs*

    I noticed that when I started using my cane that suddenly people wanted to know all about why. Why was I using it, how was I feeling, why didn’t I have it today? It is overwhelming, and it takes a little bit to get used to deflecting. I had a high school teacher once who hurt his thumb and when we would ask him he told us it was from a sword fight.

  9. When I was in college I managed to both sprain my left knee and break a finger in the same weekend. (In two separate incidences. It was… impressive). I showed up for class Monday morning in a knee brace and a hand splint and all of a sudden everyone wanted to know what had happened and offer me sympathy, advice and assistance, etc.

    And the thing is, at that time I was actually in the middle of a fairly massive mental breakdown. I was in fact sick, desperately sick, desperately in need of sympathy and advice and most of all help, and not getting any of that. It really forefronted for me the massive dissonance in the societally conditioned response to visible and invisible illness/injury.

  10. As someone with “visible”[sic](to sighted folks) disabilities, this happens all. the. time. Everywhere i go. i cant go anywhere on the bus without someone asking “what happened to you”, “do you have ________?” etc. Like i know them. Like i care to share my shit with them. People are more likely to do it when im alone, which is a whole ‘nother layer of gross. And if i dont play along, they usually get pissed. Because im supposed to be available for anyone, anytime.

    Having an injury is a taste. Paired with the reality that this has been my experience for many years, and will be my experience for the rest of my life adds again a whole other layer.

  11. Dave D. – I think your comment and this from Gnatalby – “Maybe if the person is a child and you are a teacher, but other than that, no.” (emphasis mine) go together.

    Disabled people – visibly disabled people – are not independent adults. They are children, they need our help. Also, they may not even know (because everyone in a wheel chair is MR or locked inside their brain by some other disorder) *whispers* that they’re disabled. So if you ask nosy questions, they’ll realize and get off the street and stop freaking out the normal people. (Man, having an “invisible” disability is awesome! I’m treated like an adult, people expect things of me… okay, I want them to be visible. If I could invent something, it would be a device that makes invisible disabilities visible somehow, so I can be treated like a child! No, so I can stop with the damaging self-doubt.)

    Abby Jean – ouch! I hope you get some kick-ass scars, and go yeah, went one-on-one with a mountain lion. He lost. *cool pose* (I’m sorry, I still have that mentality from childhood that goes, “Wanna see what happened when I fell off my bike? Blerd everywhere!” “Ooh, cool!”)

  12. Having a recurrent injury myself, this story really struck me. My knees dislocate about once a year (or more) and I’m in the brace, on crutches for a while, and pretty continuously limited in physical activity. I am still in the brace currently and I thought I was finally done getting unsolicited comments, questions, and advice at my university. I went to the passport office two days ago and someone asked again, then told me to take care as I was leaving (as if we were life long friends)!

    I hate that I’m so polite to people who are not returning the same kind of behavior. I hate that my socialization as a female makes my first reaction come out like some weird twist between deference and self-deprecating humor. I wish I could say a “fuck off” type response but I can’t seem to get the guts to do so when I’m in the moment. Even worse, when I talked to my friends about the pain and annoyance from being on public display and feeling like a tabloid story, they tell me to “be kind” because people are “just concerned” and “want to help”.

    *stews in silent anger*

    How do you all get the guts to tell people to leave you alone?

  13. I have previously only lurked and not commented, but I’ve read pretty much everything that’s been posted on fwd.

    While I almost certainly would not ask a stranger what happened, if I did and got your response “I was being attacked by a vampire but I managed to deflect him so he bit my cheek instead of my neck” I would probably think you were awesome and want to be friends. So maybe not quite the “go away” effect you are going for 😀

    And that certainly sucks. Hell hath no fury like a cat scorned.

  14. As someone who deals with permanent and painful and visible disabilities every day, I need to tell you no. As in no, I never get used to it. I will never get used to it. I have good days and bad days, and on the good days, I do my best to forget. Yes, I always have to compensate for the fact that I can’t stand too long on my bad knee, or that my elbow makes it hard to brush my hair or teeth, but I will never get used to it. I will never forget it, or stop resenting it. And when nosy strangers ask personal questions, or act like it’s no big deal, since I’ve dealt with it so long. [Redacted per comment policy.] Who the hell are they to tell me I should get used to it?

  15. It gets real interesting when your so called allies and peers who have othered you decide to use behind the back peer pressure so that they can catch you being crazy and get something done about you. They can get real creative………..I prefer medium point ink pens, can’t stand fine point, should have heard all of the conspiracy theories on that one……why is it that some people seem to think that they will somehow get extra brownie points if they can convince people that they are going up against Hannibal Lector?? Hhhmmm prefers medium point pens now that can indicate a danger!!

  16. I recently posted about trying to explain this phenomenon and why it’s offensive to my (abled) mother.

    She could not, for the life of her, understand why it was offensive to have people prying into my medical history and suggesting all kinds of useless ‘help’.

    *sigh* She told me I had a bad attitude, because I should be glad that I wasn’t being ignored, which is what her coworker who uses a ‘chair complains about.

    …because, you know, BOTH of those can’t be problematic.


  17. A temporary injury is completely different from a permanent disability.

    When I recently injured my thumb, I did not think of it in the same way as I think of my permanent disabilities, or my chronic impairments, or even my fixable-with-enough-time-and-physio/medical-treatment issues. It was an injury, something that would heal (as long as RSD didn’t set in – which has not happened, so I think I’m pretty much in the clear on the count. Once you get RSD, you fear every injury, especially to an extremity, will lead to RSD. But that’s a whole other ball of wax.)

    A temporary injury is something that happens to you – it’s not YOU. It’s like hair dye. Someone can compliment you on your gorgeous red hair, but if it comes from a bottle they’re only complimenting you on your excellent hair colouring skills (or those of your stylist.) It has nothing to do with your natural state. A temporary injury is going to heal. Your dye job is going to grow out. And you’ll be the same person you always were.

    Something being permanent does NOT magically make it easier to cope with. If you can’t use your left index finger, you can’t use your left index finger. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been unusable, or how long it’s going to remain unusable. You can learn to cope and train yourself to be faster or more nimble with the other fingers, but that doesn’t change the fact that you can’t use your left index finger. It’s just as irritating. Just as frustrating.

    But more so, because a permanent disability is permanent. That’s what makes it a disability and not an injury. When you know something is not going to heal, then you have to live with the knowledge that it’s never going to get any better. It is YOU. As in “YOU have a left index finger that does not work” is a statement that will apply to you forever and ever. I’d say that gives a significant advantage to the temporary-injured side of the equation.

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