I know a guy who says that when people ask him how long he’s been in a wheelchair, he’s starts responding, “Since I got up this morning.” Sometimes, when I feel especially bold or especially frustrated, I borrow it. Despite the fact that my wheelchair and I have a special bond, to the point where I often actually do consider it a part of my body – or at least an extension of it – at the end of the day, we are two separate entities. Being “in” my chair is not a fixed state of being just because that’s my usual method of getting around; I’m only in a wheelchair when I’m … you know, actually in it.
We hear these phrases all the time, though. They’ve become so deeply threaded into our cultural lexicon that we don’t even think about what they actually mean. A person is “wheelchair bound” or “confined” to a wheelchair. Sometimes, most ridiculously of all, people will seemingly assume that a person who uses a wheelchair simply becomes the chair: “We need a table for four people and one wheelchair.” I’ve shared laughs with disabled friends about us being transformers, able to fold our human bodies into the frames of wheelchairs at will. But like most humor that comes out of adversity, it’s the kind of laughter that takes the edge off of real pain.
Language can build barriers too
So much of the language around disability is loaded in ways that abled people aren’t able to see. The idea of being bound or confined to a wheelchair is a huge example of this. In fact, I consider myself freed by my chair. It’s because I have it that I’m able to do as much in the world as I am. It reduces the amount of pain and fatigue I have to deal with and gives me a way of moving around that doesn’t depend on being able to predict the state of my too often unpredictable body. To almost any disabled person who has had to live without a wheelchair for any period of time when they didn’t have another workable option, finally getting one is a moment of liberation. The problem with this kind of casually ableist language is that it’s written by abled people, so it lacks the perspective that comes from living in a disabled body and understanding what truly does and does not hold us back.
It’s a common refrain in the disability activism community that it often isn’t the conditions of our bodies that disable us so much as the condition of the world we live in: it’s not your wheelchair keeping you from getting into that building, it’s the inaccessible doorway. Our language can build barriers in much the same way that physical ones are built. By using words that imply that the lives of disabled people are tragic, abled people build invisible walls around us that make it harder for us to be taken seriously when we self-advocate and campaign for understanding and for people to accept that we actually like our lives and bodies.
I see this a lot in autism forums, which are dominated by people who are not autistic but may have a family member who is or teach children who are. The prevailing narrative in these spaces insists that autism is literally a fate worse than death; that autistic people must be miserable because many of us live our lives in a way that doesn’t make sense to neurotypical people or seem like it could make them happy; that parenting an autistic child is a burden and these parents are heroic simply for caring for their own children; that the most important thing is finding a cure, not finding ways to make the world a welcoming place for us now, the way we are. It even shows up in things as seemingly small and hair-splitting as the way that these parents, educators, and “allies” insist on calling us “people with autism” despite being told that autistic is the preferred term. In fact, pretty much whenever an actual autistic person speaks up, they’re instantly silenced: the tragic narrative has become so prevalent that the people who subscribe to it don’t even believe us when we tell them otherwise.
Sympathy doesn’t make things better for us
I switch back and forth between using a wheelchair or crutches, and there are people in my neighborhood who will congratulate me on the days they see me on my crutches, assuming that this is a sign of recovery or at least perseverance on my part. This stems from that “wheelchair bound” rhetoric that has them convinced that the wheelchair limits me. In fact, most likely if you see me on my crutches I’m more likely to be tired and in pain than if you see me in my chair; I do use them on my “good days,” but even on the best days I have, walking takes a lot out of me. Still, people who have been taught all their lives that wheelchairs are confining and people who use them are stuck in them often can’t learn to reframe the narrative around valuing the comfort and ease of a disabled person having as much assistive equipment as that person feels they need.
This is why they’re still doing empathy exercises where able-bodied people use wheelchairs for a brief period of time in order to supposedly understand what it’s like to live life as a wheelchair user. Aside from the obvious fact that no one can truly understand another person’s life when they’re only trying it on for a few hours or a few days, with the knowledge that they can step out of it at any moment if they need or want to, these exercises always seem to miss the point. You hear people talking about how they see the challenges of an inaccessible world first-hand: doors they can’t open, steps they can’t climb, tables they can’t roll all the way up to so they end up spilling in their laps. (Seriously, whose idea was it to make every restaurant table have one fat leg right in the middle so your footplate ends up bumping into it and keeping you sitting a foot back from the edge of the table top?) But they come away from it, not fueled with a new passion to redesign the world to accommodate wheelchair users, but most often just feeling sorry for us. That’s the last thing we need. Sympathy – and worse, pity – doesn’t make things better for us, it only makes abled people feel better about themselves.
While people who use casually ableist language may think “they’re just words,” those words have a ripple effect. The very real structural ableism that continues to push disabled people to the margins even in a world where solutions to most of the situations that other us exist but are rarely actually applied is fueled by that language. Using words that box us in and imply that our lives have less value ensures that people will continue to grow up with the idea that this is actually true. Some of those people will end up being the people who decide policy and whether we deserve to have access to the same opportunities as abled people, or for that matter, whether we deserve to live at all.
More Radical Reads: How Loving My Wheelchair is Radical Self Love
Start actively challenging this language when you encounter it. Ask a disabled person what they’d like to be called, or what they think of their relationship to their assistive equipment. Stop putting words in our mouths, and on our bodies. Many of us who use wheelchairs will probably agree that those words are what confine and limit us – not our chairs, which are actually pretty great.
[Featured Image of a person with a mac air on their lap. They are wearing ripped jeans and a blue shirt. A black and white dog is next to them. Source: pexels.com]