DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am in my 20s and have used a wheelchair for more than a decade, so I am accustomed to pushing myself, shopping, using public transportation, working and otherwise running my life. However, I can't seem to accustom myself to others' reactions to me.
I realize that many, if not all, of the people who make comments about my disability or ask me questions have good intentions. In fact, I think that they frequently believe they are being especially kind and friendly. However, they drive me crazy!
The comments and questions fall into a few general categories:
"You're so inspiring!"
"You're so good at that!" (This refers to something like pushing elevator buttons or drinking from a water fountain or crossing the street unassisted.)
"What's wrong with you?"
"How do you do X?" (e.g., use the toilet, write, fly on an airplane, have sex, etc.)
"I will pray for you." (Or "You should pray for yourself" or "This is God's plan for your life.")
"Let me tell you what will fix you."
"I have a relative/friend/client who has such-and-such condition, and here is her life story."
"Do you have a license for that thing?" (Or "Have you ever gotten a speeding ticket?")
I am only talking about strangers here; these are not people with whom I have any social or professional connections. Often the person is considerably older than I am.
I do not wish to be rude or to leave people feeling bad about their encounters with me. I also don't want to spend much time on them, give out personal information, or do anything to encourage them to behave the same way with the next person with a disability who crosses their path.
People also often offer to help me. I appreciate their kindness and willingness to be of service. If I want their help, I accept it with thanks.
If I don't, I refuse politely. My refusal is frequently followed by increasingly insistent offers of the same help I've just declined, sometimes bolstered with explanations of why I really need it. Occasionally people take it upon themselves to help me without giving any warning. For example, someone might run up behind me and start pushing my wheelchair when I'm going down the street. What is a proper response in these circumstances?
GENTLE READER: "Excuse me, is there some way I can be of assistance to you?"
For the ruder questions, the first two words are boomed out; for others, the words to be emphasized are "I" and "you."
Miss Manners promises that this will produce a dumbfounded look, during which you can say pleasantly, "Well, then, I'll be on my way" and leave.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: What do you bring to dinner when invited by another couple?
GENTLE READER: Promptness, cheerfulness, sociability and a sense of social indebtedness strong enough to require you to send a letter of thanks immediately afterward and a reciprocal invitation in the near future. Bringing flowers or candy is optional, and bringing food and drink to anything other than a cooperative party is (Miss Manners assures you, in contradiction of what you are told elsewhere) superfluous.