Using a wheelchair in public requires you to develop a strong system of defense mechanisms, as it tends to lead strangers to assume they have access to your body. Sometimes these intrusions are physical, like when someone pushes your chair without permission, grabs items out of your hands to “help you carry them,” or climbs over you to open a door for you even if you could have opened it yourself.
It can feel almost as invasive to have to field all the inappropriate comments abled people feel entitled to fling at you just for existing in a disabled body. If you’re reading this and you’re one of those people, here are some things wheelchair users like me would really like to never hear again.
1. “What happened to you?”
The simple act of using a wheelchair to get around is seen by some people as an invitation to ask us for our entire medical history. For some of us, the reasons we use a chair are complicated and difficult to explain. At times our reasons are related to traumas that are uncomfortable or outright triggering to talk about. Whatever the circumstances of our wheelchair use might be, they aren’t anyone else’s business unless we decide they are.
Sometimes being asked this feels like a challenge, like we’re expected to justify our need for our chairs. Other times, it just feels like morbid curiosity, like we’re specimens on display every time we leave our homes.
If you see someone using a wheelchair, all you need to know is that they need it. You don’t need to know why.
2. “Do you really need that chair?”
This one is mostly directed at ambulatory or part-time wheelchair users, but any of us who are able to move, stretch, or cross our legs, stand up for a few seconds to grab something off a shelf, or transfer out of our chairs and into another seat might have to deal with accusations of “faking,” or chirpy assertions that we need to “use it or lose it” from people who have never lived in our bodies and have no idea how they work.
More Radical Reads: What Disability Bigotry Looks Like
There will be the people who compare our disabilities to those of someone they know who “refused to give up” or of the Paralympic athlete they saw on TV who “overcame the odds.” They don’t seem to understand that all disabilities – and all disabled people – are different, and there’s no set standard for what disabled bodies “should” be able to do.
3. “But you’re so young!”
Pretty much every wheelchair user under the age of 50 has heard this one at some point. Some people conflate disability with age, considering it a natural part of the aging process rather than something that can happen to any person at any time, and never happens to some people at all no matter how old they get to be.
I work for an agency that helps other disabled people, including many senior citizens. Often if I ask them whether a family member they’ll be bringing along on a trip is also disabled. They will reply, “No, she’s young,” or “No, he’s a child,” with notes of shock or even offense in their voices. Perpetuating this line of thought fuels the idea that being disabled as a child or younger adult is a tragedy. This narrative holds us back from being able to live our fullest lives and love ourselves exactly as we are.
4. “You should get that fixed!”
This is one I get a lot these days, and I hate it. Some mishandling by transit workers has messed up my chair a bit, but like a lot of disabled folks with aging and beat-up equipment, there’s not a lot I can do about it right now.
Most of my friends who are wheelchair users either currently or at some point have had to put up with rolling around in a busted-up chair because they didn’t have the means to fix or replace the chair. The same is true for me. Sometimes my wheels squeak because they don’t sit properly in the frame. As I roll past, people will shout to me that I should put some grease on them, as if it was that simple and the idea had just never occurred to me.
People who don’t understand just how expensive and hard to repair our equipment can be think they’re being funny, or maybe even actually helpful, by calling out these comments. But they come off as jokes at our expense.
In fact, this extends to commenting on a person’s wheelchair in general. Sometimes when I’m struggling up the hill in my manual chair, a neighbor will yell out, “You need a motorized one!” And someday, I probably will. The type of condition I have isn’t often suited to long-term manual chair use. But right now, my living situation is difficult enough with my manual chair and would be impossible with an electric one.
When you see a person using a wheelchair that seems outdated, out of shape, or unsuited to that person’s needs, consider that they probably – okay, definitely – already know that, and they’re just doing the best they can to work with what they’ve got.
5. “When are you going to get better?”
People who say this probably mean well. They see a person using a wheelchair – maybe a person they know who hasn’t always used one, or a person who is young or “looks healthy” – and they can’t see a reason for the person to need the chair. Maybe they assume the disabled person is using it while they heal from a temporary injury or illness.
This is probably especially confusing when abled people encounter someone like me who can switch up mobility aids, who might come out in the chair one day and on crutches the next. They assume that walking days are signs of progress toward getting better, and days in the chair are signs of regression. They want to cheer me on in my “recovery” on days when I seem to be improving, but the truth is that my body just lets me move around and bear weight on things more on some days than others. It will probably always be like that.
More Radical Reads: How to Center People With High Needs in the Disability Movement
Assuming a person is going to “get better” from their disability or illness can be hurtful if that person is still coming to terms with what their condition means for them, both day-to-day and in the future. It can also make a person who knows they’re likely to always be disabled feel like you don’t value their life unless they someday become a version of themself that isn’t possible.
6. “I’m sorry.”
You can say you’re sorry if you bump into us or trip and spill something on us. You should say you’re sorry if you didn’t know better and made one of those mistakes, like pushing our chairs without asking and then being corrected by us. But please don’t say you’re sorry we exist in disabled bodies.
When I have one of the above conversations with someone and tell them that yes, I am really disabled and yes, I probably always will be, the response I frequently get is an apology. What I hear when I tell you the realities of my body and hear “I’m sorry” is that you don’t think my body is good enough just the way it is; that you don’t think my life is worth being excited about since I can’t do everything many other people can.
I find ways to do things that are important to me, to connect with the things and the people I love, and to make my life in this body worthwhile. There are things about my life that are hard, and things that would be easier without my collection of disabilities and illnesses, but there are also things about my life exactly as it is that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
The chair itself isn’t a tragic thing; in fact, getting it was one of my happiest moments, because it meant I was finally free from spending most of my time in bed. Working to make the world a place that’s truly accessible to wheelchair users would mean a lot more to us than telling us you feel sorry we need to use them.
[Featured Image: Close-up photo of a person’s crossed legs as they sit in a chair outside wearing blue pants and blue shoes. They appear to be at a coffee shop or bistro. In the background are another person’s crossed feet, perhaps resting underneath a table. Source: Pexels]