"What Happened To You?": What to do when a child asks someone about their disability

Published on: 06 April 2021 Author: James Catchpole

Author of What Happened To You? James Catchpole suggests five things to do when a child asks this of a disabled person.

Author James Catchpole with his children and the cover of What Happened To You?

“What happened to you?” is a question all disabled people are familiar with.

Those of us with visible disabilities get it anytime and anywhere, and from more or less anyone: someone waiting at the bus stop; a shopper in the supermarket; at the post office counter. And however often we hear it, and however used to fielding it we are, it still presents a quandary - a stranger has asked a very personal question. How should we answer? Truthfully? But why should we serve up our hardest truths to satisfy someone’s passing curiosity? Do they even want a truthful answer?

“What happened to you?” is not just a personal question, but the most personal question, singling us out as different and tapping into our vulnerabilities, and often trauma. So it’s perhaps surprising that so many people feel entitled to ask it of strangers – but then there’s been a concerted campaign for some years (in newspapers, in children’s books), insisting that everyone has the right to ‘just ask’ - so much so, in fact, that it has become something like a status quo. 

I've written my picture book to show how these situations can feel from a disabled child's perspective. I hope disabled kids will feel validated by it - after all, they're as entitled to privacy as everyone else - and that non-disabled kids will get a chance to see things from their disabled peers’ perspective.

When children ask the question, it’s understandable. With non-disabled kids, their starting point is usually one of bewilderment, which they tend to express very directly – in my case: YOU’VE ONLY GOT ONE LEG!!! After all, they may not yet have learned the social code that says you don’t go around asking personal questions of strangers. So then they ask “what happened to you?” of course, and I fob them off in a friendly way with a generic answer like “nothing, I’m disabled!”, and that’s fine, up to a point. But it’s not really my job – I’m trying to stop my own kids from running down the slide… 

"I don't know what to do!"

Truth is, as with any of the embarrassing, personal questions kids sometimes ask of strangers (see: why are you fat? and why are you bald?), it falls to the kids’ own parents to take the lead in this situation, and a great many of them feel they ought to, but don’t know what to do. I know this, because sometimes they come over and tell me sorry, but I don’t know what to do!

There’s certainly a fair bit of confusion around this, as evidenced by the range of ways in which parents do intervene. At one end of the scale some shush their kids crossly, which seems guaranteed to associate disability with some sense of awkwardness for them, at the very least. At the other end of the scale, some parents are so keen for their kids not to feel awkward around disabled people that they actively encourage them to march on up to us and ask whatever they like. And surely that’s how you create a future generation of bus-stop botherers.

So what should parents do?

In the interests of trying-to-be-helpful, my book ends with some suggestions, in the event that your child has just spotted a disabled person and wants to know everything about them, all at once, and at TOP VOLUME:

  1. Don’t panic. You don’t want to make your kids awkward. A calm, matter-of-fact tone works best.
  2. Answer simply and generally: yes, some people have one leg, or use a wheelchair, or move and speak differently, and that’s OK. Disability is normal.
  3. Educate generally: some people use wheelchairs if their legs don’t work so well, some people are born without a leg, some people lose one in an accident etc.
  4. It’s good to be curious BUT…be clear you don’t know this person specifically, and it has to be OK not to know. It’s not polite to ask people you don’t know personal questions. WHY? asks your child…
  5. Manners, for one thing. But also; empathy! Just imagine how BORING it would be having to answer the same question all the time!

Best of luck!

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What Happened To You? is our Bookmark Book of the Month for April.


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