I love my wheelchair.
I know this is a radical statement, in this society we live in, where celebrities pose in wheelchairs for photo shoots to symbolize “feeling trapped”; where able-bodied people “raise awareness” about how awful it is to be disabled by spending a day in a wheelchair; where a character on my favorite TV show spent a whole season in one after an injury only to be magically cured, the point driven home that he wasn’t whole until he was walking on his own two feet again. We get these messages every day, no matter what kind of body we’re in: wheelchairs are a terrible thing; they’re the last resort we’re supposed to avoid at all costs. We see the image of the person walking inch by inch with an unsteady gait, determined to stay out of that chair. We see the doctor who makes “getting out of that chair” the goal elevated above managing disability/chronic illness symptoms in a way that improves the person’s quality of life, chair or no chair. I am told, directly and indirectly, on a near-daily basis, not to love my wheelchair. But I still do.
Loving my wheelchair isn’t always an easy thing to do. I don’t love that there are buildings all over my city that I can’t get into, because my chair can’t go up their steps. I don’t love that people will sometimes stare at me with pity or morbid curiosity; that people will touch me without my consent because they think pushing my chair for me without asking my permission is “helping” me; that I have had first dates and job interviews effectively end the moment I unexpectedly showed up in my chair. But when I really think about these things, it isn’t the chair that makes these situations so difficult for me: it’s living in a society that still has a hard time making space for people like me who need to use a wheelchair to navigate the world.
In a way, this is a lot like having self-love for other things about me that I have to fight to love against a culture that repeatedly sends me the message that I shouldn’t. I have never hated my fat, but I have hated being fat-shamed by doctors and blamed for my own medical problems even when there’s no scientific evidence to back up their prejudice. I have never hated my many non-gender-normative interests and personality traits, but I hate the stereotypes and assumptions people carry about “effeminate” men and the ways those stigmas create barriers for me to be taken seriously and feel safe.
Divorced from society’s opinions and expectations, I know that my chair is not the enemy. In fact, it’s the opposite. The same thing that others are so fond of painting as “confining” and “holding me back” is actually the thing that gives me my freedom. When I was still trying to get around by hobbling on a cane or crutches, my whole life was built around compensating for how difficult that was. I planned every errand around the distance between places where I could sit and rest. I strategized how I could stand and walk as little as possible while still accomplishing the things I needed to do. Sometimes, despite my best calculations, one of my legs would give out while I was trying to make a simple trip to the bathroom at work or wait in a short line at the post office on my way home, and I’d have to go into damage control mode, just hoping I could recover enough to limp home. When I was at home, whether at the end of the day or on my days off, I mostly stayed in bed. Whatever strength and energy I had needed to be conserved and rationed precisely; there wasn’t any left for the things I found fun or important outside of basic daily survival tasks.
Getting my chair was like getting my life back. Suddenly I didn’t have to worry about whether there would be a seat wherever I was going, because I would be bringing my own; this hugely opened up the number of places I could go. I could go more places in a day because resting along the way was easier, and the pain and fatigue I experience in my body was reduced by being able to ride in the chair. Now, I can even go faster; it takes a lot of energy and I still have to be careful about that, but if I’m running late to catch a bus or clock in at work, by pushing myself to roll my chair faster, I can even, in a sense of the word, “run.” On legs, my life was a small one, limited to work, the most essential of errands, and bed. On wheels, I have a life that has room again for the things I love. I can go out with my friends, I can have date nights with my partner, I can perform and be involved in the creative world that feeds my soul. It’s because of my wheelchair, not in spite of it, that my life feels as full now as it does.
But it’s not just about what my chair can do for me. Even if it weren’t for all of that, the fact remains that my chair is a part of me, my life, and who I am. Since I rarely go anywhere without it, in a sense, my chair is an extension of my body. As someone who is committed to loving my body – every part of it, even the parts seen as less conventionally lovable – I can’t truly and fully practice self-love if I don’t extend that love to my chair. If I’m fighting against all of the voices in the magazines, all of the ones whispering around the corners, and all the ones that take up residence in my head on my worst days in order to find beauty and strength and worth in my body, then the wheels that serve as my legs when I’m moving through this world have to have beauty and strength and worth to me too, because my body wouldn’t be out moving through the world without them.
If I only loved the parts of myself that those voices already told me were desirable, I’d be so much less of myself. I’d be cutting out some of my best parts. I still remember the day I got my chair, how I ran my hand over the dark green frame I chose for myself, thinking about how much easier I hoped my life was about to be, how many things chronic illness had taken from my life that I was hoping the wheelchair was going to give back to me. The embarrassment I felt when I knew I was drawing unwelcome attention in it was a price I was willing to pay for the freedom and confidence I got as a reward for fighting through those feelings. It’s not in spite of that fighting that I love my wheelchair, but because of it. I overcame everyone else’s stigmas and my own internalized ableism and shame to accept it as another part of my body that isn’t perfect by everyone else’s standard but is still glorious to me because it’s mine. I am learning to love myself wholly, piece by piece, both the pieces I came with and the ones I had to add on.
I love my body, in all of its messiness and unpredictability: my heart that gets me into trouble more often than not, my brain that sometimes gets me out, my hands that create and nurture and love, and my wheelchair that carries all of the beautiful mess of me to the awaiting world.
[Featured Image: Two people are pushing a person in a wheelchair. They are in a building with tall, decorated windows. Source: Charlie Scott]