Talking to a Stranger About Friedreich’s Ataxia Reminded Me to Stop, Learn More About Others

A conversation highlights the importance of curiosity, connection between people

Sean Baumstark avatar

by Sean Baumstark |

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Tensions are always high and opinions seem to be loudest whenever it’s election season. Of course, it’s best to avoid the topic of politics at holiday gatherings, meet-and-greets, and in this column. However, given all the recent political ads and an experience I had the other day, I’ve realized something important.

I often hear statements such as, “They need to learn …” or, “The world would be a better place if people would just learn …” No matter the context or concern, one group always seems to know better than another. We each hold a specific set of convictions, but when others don’t share the same beliefs, we may think they “just haven’t learned yet.”

Last week, I was at the airport on my way to visit family. While making my way through the terminal, I noticed a young couple heading out of town. The man was pushing a walker overloaded with luggage, and the young lady had two handbags and a small rolling suitcase in tow. I watched the man for a few steps and didn’t notice any abnormalities in his gait. Considering the amount of luggage they had, I thought they might be in charge of the first bag run and would return to help an older person in their party. It turned out the walker was his.

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Living With Disability Teaches Me the Importance of Offering Grace to Others

As fate would have it, we briefly ended up in the same elevator. As the door closed, the young man, without hesitation, looked at my walker and said, “Drive, huh? Mine’s a Drive, too. Do you have MS like me?”

I immediately heard arguments in my mind for two different responses: the “none of your business” tone I’ve taken in the past, and the “thanks for asking” approach I’ve adopted in recent years. I’m not always sure which response is most appropriate.

I decided to tell him that I have Friedreich’s ataxia, a degenerative disease that’s almost like a cousin to multiple sclerosis.

We parted ways after just one floor, but our brief conversation got straight to the point without any fluff or judgment.

This was a relief, as past conversations about my disability have often left me feeling ashamed or frustrated. Some people curl their lips and ask questions in a tone that feels judgmental or accusatory. Others see my poor muscle coordination and assume I’m drunk.

Instead, the man in the elevator seemed intrigued to see someone who looked like him. As I walked away, I was struck by his uninhibited curiosity and initiative. There seems to be a certain degree of comfort and mutual respect when common ground exists, or appears to exist, between people. Perhaps building connections would be easier if everyone engaged in conversation with curiosity and a genuine desire to understand one another.

Whatever the case, “Do you have MS?” is far better than “What’s wrong with you?” I will always respect a curious nature more than accusations or assumptions.

No matter what side of an issue we’re on, we all have much to learn, and there’s no good excuse for not asking questions. The world might actually be a better place if we learn to embrace our differences and work to understand others rather than judging them.

Note: Friedreich’s Ataxia News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Friedreich’s Ataxia News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Friedreich’s ataxia.


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