Using a wheelchair in public requires you to develop a strong system of defense mechanisms, because 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, with the help of a button or otherwise – but it can feel almost as invasive to have to field all of 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:
“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, and for some they 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 are expected to justify our need for the chair. Other times, it just feels like morbid curiosity, like we are 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.
“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. 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.
“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, and 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 a younger adult is a tragedy and holds us back from being able to live our fullest lives and love ourselves exactly as we are.
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“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. Sometimes my wheels squeak because they don’t sit properly in the frame, and 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. Most of my friends who are wheelchair users either currently or at some point had to put up with rolling around in a busted-up chair because they didn’t have another option for mobility and also didn’t have the means to fix or replace the chair. People who don’t understand just how expensive and hard to repair our equipment can be think they’re being funny or maybe even being actually helpful by calling out these comments, but they come off more 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.
“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 obviously see a reason for the person to need the chair – and assume that they must be using it while they heal from a temporary injury or illness. This is probably especially confusing when they encounter someone like me who can switch up mobility aids and 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 put weight on things more on some days than others, and it will probably always be like that. Assuming that a person is going to “get better” from their disability/illness can be hurtful to that person if they’re still coming to terms with what their condition means for them in terms of both their day to day reality and their plans for the future. It can also make a person who knows they are likely to always be disabled feel like you don’t value their life unless they someday become a version of themselves that isn’t possible.
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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 were corrected by us. But please don’t say you’re sorry that 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 can be one to be excited about living even though I can’t do everything that 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 that we need to use them.
[Featured Image: A photo of a two legs in blue pants and blue shoes. There are another pair of legs and shoes are in the photo. Source: pexels.com]