On our way home recently, Kyle and I amused each other by coming up with equivalents to the dreaded and discombobulating questions we sometimes get about Collin when we meet new people: "What's wrong with him?" "What does he have?"
"Hi! I see you wear glasses. What's wrong with your eyes?"
"Hello. Have you ever had that mole checked out?"
"Nice to meet you. Do you have any health conditions you'd like to tell me about?"
"Good morning. You look about 40 pounds overweight. Is that because of a thyroid issue or do you just eat too much?"
We laughed at the preposterousness of our examples, but then I felt sobered by the truth of it. I realized why the "Hi, what does he have?" greetings bother me so much. It's not because of any discomfort over Collin or his challenges - it's a bristling at the presumption that it's okay to immediately call attention to Collin's differences and expect an explanation before making any effort to get to know him. That, because he has an obvious disability (or two or three), that's the first thing he (we) wants to talk about.
I read Tina Fey's Bossypants this year and a part that seared itself into my mind was when she talked about her facial scar and how most of her best friends have never asked about it. Maybe even more interesting was the fact that she never felt obligated to tell the story behind the scar just because someone asked, instead deflecting or making something up. It wasn't that she was ashamed. She simply refused to let people make that scar a defining characteristic just because it was visually obvious.
Of course, Kyle and I want to encourage people to ask questions about Collin so they can best understand and interact with him. But maybe not as soon as we meet. Just like in all relationships, some things come later. It's a privilege and not a right to get to that point.
Now let me clarify: I am not talking about kids here. This will be an entirely different post at some point, but with children, questions like these are good. I hate to see parents who are mortified that their child is asking pointed questions about Collin fumbling through some noncommittal answer to get them to shut up. All that does is make things more confusing for the child, which makes it less likely that they will reach out and befriend Collin. But, in my opinion, it is not rude for a child to ask what is on his or her mind. There is no intro-period with kids. They jump straight to the get-to-know-you phase. So when a young child asks me why Collin isn't opening his eyes or why he doesn't talk or walk, I see that as an opportunity. Yes, it's hard for me to watch the uncertainty on their faces as they peer at Collin and ponder my response, but it has never turned out poorly. Usually, they accept my answer, sometimes ask more questions, and then seal the deal by giving Collin a high five when I ask if they'd like to.
Naturally, all of this has made me wonder which things I feel entitled to know about others. What questions do I use to try to figure someone out before taking the time and effort to actually learn about them through observation and interaction? Can I accept someone without an explanation? When the painfully obvious threatens to take over my perception of someone, can I take a deep breath, smile, and just say, "Hi, I'm Annie. It's nice to meet you."?