“DO YOU MIND?” Author and journalist Tim Rushby-Smith reflects on widening the conversation around disability

Enable_JF17AS I WAITED IN line to purchase a bottle of wine in the local off licence recently, I found myself the subject of another customer’s curiosity. Despite his having only just entered the shop and my desire to leave it as soon as possible, it appears he’s in the mood for a chat.

“Alright, mate,” says he. “Hi,” I nod briefly.

And then it comes. No preamble.

He just dives straight in.

“What happened to you, if you don’t mind me asking?”



Well, that’s a toughie. If I do mind, it’s too bloody late now. I have to choose either to share the details of my disability with a complete stranger, or create a moment of awkwardness by telling him to mind his own business.

I’m sure we have all encountered this kind of curiosity. More often than not, it’s not intended to offend, but comes more as an impulsive outburst that is ill-conceived.

It’s based on a huge assumption, for starters. Supposing nothing ‘happened’ to me. If I had been in a wheelchair all my life, how awkward does this question become? What if there was no accident, no moment for him to ‘imagine for himself’ to help him understand? What if I just say “nothing”?

If something did ‘happen’, what if it was of a distressing nature? A violent assault, or a car crash that involved the loss of loved ones?

What if I had sustained an injury as the result of a failed suicide attempt?



I am a strong advocate of open and honest conversations about disability. It is a valuable way to widen awareness and understanding, as well as being a great way to remind everyone that we are all just people. However, the timing is important.

I need first to have some kind of ‘normal’ conversation, to exchange pleasantries, perhaps talk about other topics, and build up to the, “Please don’t think me rude, but…”

Otherwise I become the living embodiment of the blue badge; defined by my wheelchair and weighed down with the baggage of whatever misconceptions the questioner may have about disability. Meanwhile, back in the shop… “What happened to you, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Oh,” I say. “I was just an idiot.”

He looks uncomfortable; suddenly awkward.

“Yep,” I continue, pointing to a sticking plaster bound around my thumb. “I was trying to open a shrink- wrapped pack of batteries with a craft knife and my hand slipped.”

Clearly confused, he smiles nervously.

I pay for my wine and leave.


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