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Popping the Question

When is it Ok to Ask?
By Jeff Tiessen
She heard it in my tone. "That was a little rude," my wife suggested to me from the kitchen as I closed the front door. "Who was that?" she questioned.
She's heard the question hundreds of times before and has heard my answer just as many times, sometimes shared with courtesy and sometimes not... “So, what happened to you?” Being a hook-wearing double-arm amputee, being asked what happened to me by strangers is a staple of daily life.

On this day it came on my doorstep from a missioning Jehovah Witness as he handed me an invitation to a special Easter Open House. I get regular visits from the good folks of the Kingdom Hall, but this Saturday it wasn't my regular guy Ed.

I like Ed... his brother was an amputee. Each visit we stand on the stoop and exchange a few pleasantries. He reads me a scripture passage or two, then talks a little Armageddon and then he’s on his way. He's just doing his job, I get it. And maybe I'm a little flattered that he’s so intent on recruiting me to the Kingdom.

But the new guy put me off and left me wondering again: “when is it okay to ask?” I suppose I was a little short with him. I felt he popped the question a little prematurely. Granted, there are no written rules of etiquette or decorum or appropriateness when it comes to asking someone how they lost their hands, or use of their legs, or sight, or whatever. But like most things in life, timing is everything isn't it?

Don't get me wrong… I'm quite fine with the question. I think it's perfectly natural for someone to wonder “what happened” (although I don't think I’d ever dare to ask someone how they got to be so fat?!). My issue comes down to “when” it’s okay to ask someone, "What happened to you?"

Maybe the first criterion is some familiarity, like, at least knowing my name before asking how I lost both hands. Yes, let's start with that question first!

Oh, and I should mention, after hearing my abbreviated account of my encounter with way too much electricity, the new Jehovah Witness guy was happy to inform me that I will be getting my hands back upon arrival in the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so curt!

What's your take? When do you think it's okay to ask what happened to somebody?

Jeff Tiessen

The Executive Producer of the Disability Today Network, Tiessen is an amputee of 45+ years, three-time Paralympian and highly sought-after presenter. Read more about the amputee experience at, Tiessen's publication for Canadians living with limb loss.

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