I could spend this entire post presenting snarky and much-deserved ripostes to the above question, but driving off people who use it without fully realising the implications is not my intent. Instead, I’ll focus on the ways in which it’s generally a Bad Idea, hopefully making this a useful resource.
The two main groups that I get this question from are new people that I encounter in social settings, and medical staff I haven’t encountered before. On the surface, the latter have a valid pass for asking such a thing, but this is rarely actually the case, and where it is, there are better, less aggressive ways of asking about the relevant topic. I’ll deal with those issues in a seperate subtopic at the end of this post. For now, I’ll present the ways in which the question is a problematic one from a general public point of view, although all of these apply to some degree to both.
“Do you need that stick?” carries with it an unspoken second option; That they don’t. That their aid is merely a pretense, put on for airs or to gain the sympathy and charity of others. It immediately puts the disabled person on the spot as having to prove themselves not to be one of these shadowy parasites. “Are you one of them? Are you Deserving Disabled, or Undeserving Disabled?” It often carries the additional demand of the disabled person having to tell the inquirer about their medical condition to such a degree as to satiate their curiosity, as “Yes.” is rarely taken as a polite answer on it’s own. Their body as a disabled person is for the public to inspect, their disability a new morsel for their curiosity.
If all of this sounds melodramatic to abled readers, the below may clarify to some degree exactly why the question carries such loaded connotations.
Disabled people have to put up with the mindsets described above every day. Suffice to say, it gets old fast. You may feel that your question was innocent and undeserving of being lumped in with the daily discrimination and prejudice that disabled people have to push themselves through. Asher over at Tranarchism puts it better than I could, so I’ll only briefly summarise here. Microaggressions are the small, often thoughtless comments and acts that are directed at people in minority groups, that on their own seem like not a particularly big thing (oft resulting in the ‘Why are you so angry?’ response) , but when sewn together into a full-time tapestry of ‘little things’ grind down the self-worth, energy and wellbeing of the person subjected to them. As the Interrogative Mindset described above is constantly applied to disabled people in so many aspects of life, having the validity of their condition called into question is a form of microaggression, regardless of intent.
This brings us nicely to the next point on the list. Whether a disabled person needs a stick to move about is not the binary issue it at first appears. The question (if there is to be one at all) is whether it helps that person in their day-to-day life or not. I can walk as well as an abled person without my stick, but I find it extremely helpful as an aid for standing on the spot for long periods of time, such as in queues, waiting for buses and the like. It is also a social signifier of disability, which is often useful. It allows me to make my disability visible*, and thus not have to deal with the anger and interrogation of abled people when I ask for and use accomodations for my disability, such as asking for a seat, asking for assistance and the like.
Do I need my stick, as I am so often asked? No; I would be able to survive without it**. Does it help me compensate for painful and draining aspects of my disability? Certainly.
-) Medical staff
I made this section seperate because there are subtly different dynamics when this question is asked by medical staff. Unless in the context of a medical examination or consultation that the stick is relevant to, this question is still just as interrogative and microaggressive as from anyone else. Possibly moreso, as in this case it is being asked by someone in a position of authority, often with direct control over the disabled person’s access to medication and aid. I have been asked this question by medical staff whom I have visited for entirely unrelated reasons, and it caught me out of the blue. What does it have to do with the nurse I saw for the flu what my stick is for? If the enquiry is with the aim of helping the disabled person, then a better question would be “Do you require any assistance or accomodations for your mobility needs?”. If the person turns out to not be disabled, then the answer would simply be “No” anyway. If they are, then you’ll get a direct answer to the issue, rather than having to second-guess from their reasons for using a stick (which may or may not overlap with their needs in relation to your institution).
* I’m aware that this choice is a privilege of having an invisible disability, and one that many people do not get a choice in at all. This is a complicated issue for me, as in my experience invisible disabilities have their own cons that go with them. In this case however it is advantageous, as it allows me to trade functionality for passing as abled.
** I recognise that this is not the case for many others who are grilled with this question.