A few years ago, the disability organization I was working with took a field trip to a performance starring dancers in wheelchairs. As usual, I was cautiously excited: while the people we served lived with a variety of physical and intellectual disabilities, I was the only disabled person on staff. The other staff members sometimes “got it” when it came to disability issues, and other times they could be extremely misguided.
The show itself turned out to be amazing. Watching the beautiful, fluid movements of this group of wheelchair users redefining what the concept of dancing could mean, showing that dancing was not a form of expression reserved for only one type of body, was a healing experience for me.
Then it happened: one dancer’s wheelchair tipped over, and with classic performer’s reflexes, she fell as gracefully as possible, making it almost look as if she’d done it on purpose. She then extended one of her legs to push the chair back upright. As she did, the coworker next to me snickered, “See, she’s not really in a wheelchair.”
I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. It’s the same feeling I get when a character in a movie or television show stands up out of the wheelchair they’ve been using, revealing that they have only been pretending to be disabled. The same feeling I got when a meme circulated showing a woman standing from her chair to reach something off a high shelf and captioned with mocking proclamations of “It’s a miracle!” (To an actual disabled person like myself, it was obvious by the posture of the woman in the meme and the way she used the shelf for support that this was not an able-bodied person who could just bounce up out of a chair whenever she felt like it.)
But the black-and-white narrative of disability we’ve been sold makes people who haven’t experienced disability themselves see wheelchair users this way: wheelchair users are people who can’t walk, at all. Anyone else who dares to use one is either lazy or faking.
The truth is, wheelchair users are a highly varied group of people. Some people do need their wheelchairs because of paralysis or other conditions that make walking impossible. Others use them because of fatigue, chronic pain, balance problems, or other conditions that make it impossible to walk long distances, even if they are capable of standing and walking to some degree.
I have unstable joints that can give out on me without warning, muscles with an unpredictable tendency to spasm, and nerves that will occasionally decide to make my whole leg just go numb. I almost always use my chair when I go anywhere outside my home because trying to walk with these conditions is exhausting, painful, and unsafe. On the rare occasions that I decide to venture across the street on my crutches to go to the bodega that has the good sandwiches but also has two concrete steps barring me from entering in my chair, I am often greeted by a well-meaning neighbor who congratulates me for my perseverance. It’s good to see me up and walking; it’s good that I don’t give up. Using my chair, then — my chair that lets me move quickly and painlessly and go longer distances without worrying about falling — is “giving up.” Prioritizing my safety and comfort over appearing as typically abled as possible constitutes failure.
When we start speculating about who does or does not truly need to use a wheelchair, we start to play into a dangerous notion that “good” disabled people should always be struggling. Because we’ve been taught that not walking is a tragedy -– through glorified narratives of people who refused to accept disability, who found a way to walk against all the odds –- we have to actively unlearn the idea that choosing to use a wheelchair when you have any other option is taking the easy way out.
More Radical Reads: 7 Reasons I Haven’t Used Assistive Devices and Why Those Reasons are Bullshit
It’s this kind of thinking that pressures disabled people to mimic able-bodied people, no matter how difficult or painful this mimicry makes our lives. There seems to be a prevailing notion that the best way to be disabled is to function with as little help as possible, which leaves it to our bodies to make up the difference. It causes us to second-guess ourselves about what we should or shouldn’t be able to do.
There have been days when I was able to shave standing in front of the bathroom mirror, using only the sink for support, and found myself guiltily wondering if I really needed to use my chair that day, since I could stand for a few minutes. There have been days when I was getting around especially well on my crutches and questioned whether I shouldn’t try using just one crutch, which would put me back in the position of struggling and working very hard to move.
The problem is that we are trained to think of a wheelchair as one of the worst things that can happen to a person. But a wheelchair isn’t a thing that happens to a person. It’s a tool, like any other, to be used by any person who sees it as a solution to a problem.
A friend of mine compares it to wearing glasses: a lot of us who wear them can, technically, see a little bit without them. But we can’t see very clearly, and straining to see well enough to navigate around can, over time, cause us pain. If we think about a wheelchair -– or any mobility aid -– as something a person might use in order to preserve strength or avoid pain, the narrative changes.
For some disabled people, the most important thing actually is to get around as much as possible without assistance, and that is absolutely their choice. But we as disabled people should have just as much freedom to choose to make it easier to go out and do more in the world if that is what’s most important to us instead. I could do a bare minimum of tasks without my chair, on a good day, with lots of breaks to rest. Or I could be out around the people I love, taking part in the activities that are meaningful to me, using my chair.
The next time you see a person using a wheelchair stand up, or transfer into another seat, or fold their chair and lift it into a vehicle, instead of assuming that the person never needed the chair in the first place, consider that maybe their mobility is fluid and they can’t be sure, even though they’re able to walk now, that they’ll be able to walk for the whole day. Maybe their mobility is limited and they can walk short distances but need to sit down and rest in between, and since they can’t guarantee the availability of a seat everywhere they’re going, they have to bring their own. Maybe they are physically able to walk but it causes them so much pain that more than a few steps would be unbearable.
The important thing isn’t why the person needs to use the chair; in fact, that’s nobody’s business but their own. The important thing is that we all stop thinking of a wheelchair as a last resort for people who have no other way of getting around, and start understanding it as a tool that can be used to help all kinds of people live the fullest and freest life possible. And that’s a good thing.
[Featured Image: A person sits in a wheelchair on the sand at the beach. They have long brown hair and are wearing a white t-shirt. Their arms are spread wide as they make peace signs with both hands. Their back is to the viewer as they take in the magnificence of the blue sky and the teal waves.]