Now I know: Meeting my first person in a wheelchair

Only when we risk being wrong can we know what's true, says JWT New York's executive strategy director.

My life started by not knowing anything about being in a wheelchair. While it is easy to say there was no need for me to know about disability, the truth is it was not even on my radar. No one around me was in one and, to my recollection, I had never met anyone in a wheelchair. 

On July 11, 1994, I would be introduced to my first person in a chair: myself. As I became all-knowing for all things wheelchair, it became clear that I was not the only one who didn’t know. Most around me didn’t know how to deal with me, either. From not getting jobs ("can he travel?") to dating ("how does "that" work?) to vernacular ("let’s take a walk"), it was obvious the onus was on me to anticipate the questions because I knew they would not be asked and the conversation would get awkward fast. 

And therein lies two problems: 

First is our societal expectation to know everything about everyone. This is an expectation no one can fill. What is scarier than things you don’t know? They are the things you know you don’t know—because it means you have to ask. Asking, which breaks the expectation of knowing, is a scary proposition leading to a vicious, never-ending loop of assumptions. 

Second are laws that prohibit asking appropriate questions. I am not intimately familiar with the details of HR regulations, but I am sure the laws we think exist are scarier than the actual law. This was no more obvious than during an interview a few years ago. I was all but certain that I had it. But alas, no response. 

After some time, and a growing friendship with the interviewer, she admitted, "I was too scared to ask if you can work long hours or travel because I didn’t think I was allowed to ask." She felt comfortable telling me because I acted as her own July 11, 1994: Before me she’d had no interaction with someone in a chair. Now she knew people in chairs aren’t scary.

The issue here did not lie with her. It sits with the fear of asking these questions in an interview even though they were highly appropriate and contextual to the role. If I were to show up at a logging company in Alaska and apply for a job to cut down trees, I fully expect their response to the wheelchair to be "Sorry bud. You can’t do the job." Why couldn’t she ask if I could complete what the role demands?

This problem has nothing to do with wheelchair, or physical ability. It has to do with our fear and reticence to ask questions. From the asker: the fear of punishment and the fear of not knowing an answer. From the receiver: the position that people are ignorant instead of curious.

Both positions are counterproductive to the creation of a diverse workforce.

We need to bring back our contextual filter and empower everyone to ask appropriate questions. While preemptively fielding answers without knowing the questions is tiring, I know it is necessary and I will continue to do it. However, we should all be empowered to ask about things we don’t know. 

Torsten Gross is the Executive Director of Strategy at J. Walter Thompson New York

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