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Part II: Boundary Setting for People Who Are New to Disability – Erik Kondo

Two opposing sets of feet with a red line between them..
Communicating a boundary visually.

People with a new visible physical disability such as an amputation or spinal cord injury are particularly vulnerable to having their personal boundaries encroached upon. In this case, they are typically insecure about their body and appearance. They lack confidence and experience in dealing with social situations as a person with a disability. They are likely to find themselves the subject of intrusive people who are curious about them in the same way people are curious about animals in a zoo or a foreign object. This type of curiosity is objectifying and self-gratifying. It is not a sincere attempt to connect and develop an understanding of disability. It doesn't take into consideration the feelings of the person being questioned.

My advice to those who find themselves in this type of situation is to recognize that you don't owe the other person anything. You don't have to answer their questions just because you have been asked. You don't have to come up with a clever or witty response. If you don't want to talk about the subject (whatever it may be), I suggest that you state in an assertive manner that you "are not interested in having this conversation". You don't need to explain why you don't want to have the conversation. A variation of this response is to employ the word "awkward" , as in "That's an awkward question. This is getting awkward, don't you think?" The goal here is to take back control of the situation. You need to set boundaries on what you are willing to discuss. If you don't set a boundary, it is likely that you will leave the encounter feeling violated. It is not your job to make the other person feel comfortable when he or she is not taking into consideration how his/her actions are affecting you.

If you just want to stop this line of disability questioning but are fine with continuing to engage with the person, then you can also steer the conversation to where you want it to go. You could say, "Let's not talk about this subject, but I would like to talk about ..." Talk about what you want to, not about what you don't want to. Use your questions to guide the interaction.

Many people with disabilities are afraid to set a firm boundary because they don't want to be perceived as "bitter" or rude. You don't have to be rude to set a boundary. You are simply establishing the rules of acceptable conversation/behavior. These rules are generally understood in social situations as to what is respectful conversation among strangers. Unfortunately, many times these social rules don't seem to apply to people with disabilities. Therefore, while you shouldn't have to tell a perfect stranger that you are not interested in discussing the intimate details of your sex life, you may have to.

I think it is helpful to remember that you are not alone in this dilemma. At any given time, throughout the world, people with disabilities are being taken advantage of in some form. By setting limits and standing up for yourself, you are not only helping yourself, you are part of a movement of people who are creating respect for the Disability Community at large.


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