The Problem with ‘Wheelchair-Bound’
I still remember the day I brought my first power wheelchair home. I remember the feeling of absolute giddiness. For the first time in my entire life, I didn’t need help to get around. I didn’t have to struggle. I could go from one end of the apartment to the other in a matter of seconds, and back and forth as many times as I wanted, too!
It wasn’t my first wheelchair. I’d had manuals before. My very first chair was a small pink one, and it was great, except I was never strong enough to push it myself. Still, it gave me the stability I needed to maintain balance and it gave me freedom in the sense that it made things easier for my parents to take me places as I grew too big to carry or use a stroller.
When I wasn’t in my wheelchair, I could sort of but not really crawl around. It was more like a scooch. I’d sit on the floor and wiggle my legs from side to side to get around. It looked ridiculous, sure, and I wasn’t fast, but it worked for me.
The older I got, the weaker I got, which meant any limited mobility I had was slowly getting more and more limited. So, I was lucky enough to get approved for a power wheelchair when I was around 10 years old.
It was a shiny teal color, and I still remember thinking it was the funnest thing in the world. I was only in elementary school at the time, so for me, it was like getting handed the keys to a sports car. The day I brought it home, I drove back and forth as fast as I could laughing and yelling ‘ZOOM ZOOM ZOOM’ like those old Mazda commercials.
Well, until I crashed into a huge house plant spilling dirt everywhere and went to my room to cry. If you were wondering, yes. I still cry easy.
Just for a second, imagine that every time you move in your house, you have to ask someone else to stop what they’re doing to carry you somewhere else. Every time you have to go to the bathroom, every time you get bored and can’t figure out what you want to do. When you want a snack, when you’re fidgety on the couch and can’t get comfortable.
It’s great to know you have someone who loves you enough to help, but you also know it’s hard on them so you don’t want to move too often when you don’t have a good enough reason to. It’s frustrating when you just want to move yourself and your body won’t let you.
Life wasn’t all doom and gloom for me before I got that chair. I was happy. I played and I had friends. But believe me when I say that everything changed once I did get it.
Finally, I could be independent in my own home. When I went to school, I could play outside at recess with my friends without an adult. I would go on walks around my neighborhood and visit my neighbors by myself. I felt like a normal kid, and it was so freeing.
Because that’s what wheelchairs are. They’re freedom.
I’m not ‘wheelchair-bound’. I hate that phrase, I hate what it implies, and if you ever refer to me as being wheelchair-bound, I’ll probably lose any and all interest in talking to you.
My wheelchair isn’t something I’m tied to. It doesn’t limit me at all, because what limits me is inaccessible spaces. It gave me independence and a chance to have a life outside the house. I don’t feel bound or trapped, and every wheelchair user I’ve ever met would say the same thing.
Wheelchairs are a positive thing, yet the language commonly used when talking about them is coated in negative connotations. Like they’re something to dread rather than a helpful tool.
This might not seem like a big deal to most, but the language we use to talk about disability (and everything else) is incredibly important and impacts us more than we might realize in the moment.
Think about it this way – a common piece of advice for those who are struggling with low self esteem is to change how you speak about yourself. Use kind words, compliment yourself. Talk to yourself like you’d talk to your best friend. It works! Changing the way you talk about something or someone makes a difference. It shifts how you think about things. Maybe not at first, but over time.
Obviously, I’m not asking anyone to compliment my wheelchair. I’m just asking that we stop talking about disability and things like wheelchairs in such a negative way. Language matters. Phrases like ‘wheelchair-bound’ perpetuate the misconception that disability is depressing and awful and that people like me are suffering victims.
There’s a reason why people stare at me with sad eyes or stop and ask if they can say a prayer for me. There’s a reason why I can’t seem to get hired anywhere and why I stopped getting matches on Tinder when I added photos that didn’t hide my wheelchair.
So, please, can we stop throwing the pity party? Can we stop acting like a wheelchair is sad sight?
Finally getting the right wheelchair I needed was an incredibly happy experience. I didn’t tearfully drive away after they buckled my seatbelt. I laughed and played! They give people a chance to have the mobility to move around and experience new places and things in a way they probably wouldn’t be able to without it.
They’re incredible, and they’re a privilege. Trust me, I know how lucky I am to have had a power chair for over half of my life. I love my chair, and I love the kind of life I’m able to live because of it. I was able to go to college on my own, one day I’ll be able to go to work. I’m able to explore the city or play in Disney World.