Why you should “see the Wheelchair”

Andy Barrow in his wheelchair on a table

I recently wrote a short piece for International Wheelchair Day. On reflection, it occurred to me that there’s a lot more to say about wheelchairs, both as a mobility aid and what they symbolise.

Because of that, I thought I’d take some time to attempt to get my thoughts out there!

To me, wheelchairs are hugely empowering things, but there remains a strong negative stigma around them in society. Why is this?

You’ve failed!

I think a big reason is that, all too often, wheelchairs are used as a symbol of failure in the media.

The accident victim who lacks the mettle to recover his or her injuries and gives up, consigning themselves to a life of (seated) misery. Or the elderly person who refuses to accept the final “insult” of being “confined to a wheelchair” or becoming “wheelchair bound”.

Ironically, the “failure” in these instances rarely comes about because the main protagonist usually manages to make a sufficient recovery and “shuns” the chair or simply shuffles off of the mortal coil, because – better off dead, than the chair, right?

This chosen narrative is hugely damaging, as are those phrases above, which are sadly part of the vernacular. (For the record, I am neither confined, nor bound to my chair.)

Speaking of the vernacular, well-meaning people sometimes use the phrase “I don’t see the wheelchair” when they’re trying to convey that they don’t discriminate towards people with a disability.

Why can’t they “see” the chair? Is it really that shameful? It may be well-intentioned but denying or screening the wheelchair is part of the problem. It just perpetuates the stigma.

Wheelchairs are cool

I want people to see my chair. I’m proud of it! What I’m trying to say is that wheelchairs are cool. They’re amazing. Life changing, in fact!

On a purely practical basis, wheelchairs are a mobility aid; a piece of equipment to do a job, so solve a problem. But to many people, they’re much more than that – Wheelchairs are things that enable, empower and bring independence to their owners.

I feel I’m well placed to speak about this as someone who has used a wheelchair for more than twenty years – over half my life – but still spent a significant amount of time walking.

Without a wheelchair, I can’t move. I’d literally need to be carried around by other people. Just think about that for a second. I’d be entirely reliant on other people to interact with society in any way.

In fact, because I’m quite severely disabled, my movement (and so independence) is seriously restricted without a fairly hi-tech, lightweight wheelchair. By that rationale, my wheelchair is a life-changing item and is vital to my wellbeing, happiness and quality of life.

I’d hate for someone who really needed a wheelchair to shun one through stigma alone, at great cost to their quality of life. Especially as there are people in so many parts of the world who can only dream of having the chance to sit in a chair especially made for them.

For me, it comes back to a maxim I’ve used before: “Can I do the things I want to do in a manner I’m happy with?”

Why struggle along painfully on crutches because society may view you as a failure if you decide a wheelchair is easier or offers you a better quality of life?

What do you think?

Would you deny yourself better sight by refusing to wear glasses?

Would you blend all your food to mush, rather than have false teeth fitted?

Do you rely solely on a sundial to tell the time?

Probably not, but if you did choose a squinty, solar-powered existence sustained by savoury smoothies; you’d still encounter far less negativity than a neat set of wheels might bring!

There’s no real conclusion to this blog; the main reason I wrote it is to put my opinion out there and see what everyone else thinks.

I’ll leave you with one final thought…. Any device that allows people to be able to live their life as independently as they like should be celebrated, not stigmatized. Wheelchairs are doing that for literally millions of people!

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