A cane leaning against a red chair

Asking About My Cane

If you follow me on twitter, you might have seen me singing the praises of my shiny new cane a couple weeks back.

I have a neurological condition that causes, among other things, dizziness. I bought a cane because having a third foot is really handy when I’m feeling unsteady.

Since I’m not dizzy every day and not in the office every day, my cane didn’t make its first appearance at the office until this Wednesday.

Wednesday looked a lot like this:

for colleague in colleagues:
  curiosity = random.randint(1,20)
  if curiosity > 5:
    print(colleague.name() + ": what happened?")
    print("me: nothing, I just have a neurological condition\
          that causes dizziness.")

(For the non-programmers among you, that means I was answering the same question all day).

I don’t particularly mind answering questions about my cane-use. It’s natural to be curious when someone you work with suddenly shows up with an assistive device. If I had it to do again I would have dropped it in the office slack to get the explanation out of the way all at once, but I didn’t find the question invasive or uncomfortable.

But sometimes, these questions are uncomfortable. Some people don’t want to talk about their health or disabilities, especially at work. People with disabilities have good reason to fear discrimination. Even when we’re not concerned about that, sometimes we don’t want to have to be the walking brochure for our conditions, or we’re not up for well-intentioned advice from people who are not part of our medical team.

Which is why I want to give a shout-out to my boss, for asking the question a different way. Rather than asking “what happened,” he asked, “are you okay?”

I replied, “yup!” and went on with what I was doing.

This phrasing conveys the same sentiment–an expression of polite concern–but it’s much easier to answer without either supplying personal information or making things awkward. That’s especially handy when there’s a power differential in play that might make someone feel like they need to answer a question even when they don’t want to.

As for the rest of my team: none of them pressed me for more information about my health or offered me unsolicited medical advice. They’re pretty good at boundaries.

I say all this not as a means of giving my office ally cookies, but because I think the world would be a better place if more folks followed their example of how to talk to people about their disabilities. It’s nice to work somewhere where I can use a cane when I need one without anyone making it weird.