Monday, March 23, 2015

7 Things Wheelchair-Users Are Sick of Hearing

People who roll, often find themselves rolling their eyes at the comments made the walking inclined public. I understand this on a very personal level, being an active wheelchair user for more than thirteen years. Many of the things heard range from vaguely weird to downright annoying, most are well-meaning but just sort of miss the mark. All in all, I do not necessarily blame the perpetrators specifically, but more the lack knowledge by society as a whole. These minor instances of ignorance, however, can actually be characterized as a form of micro-aggression. 

For those who are not familiar, micro-aggression is a social psychology term that describes subtle acts and comments, often driven by stereotypes and misconceptions that degrade, discriminate or make people of a specific group feel uncomfortable. While many micro-aggressions are unintentional and can seem harmless, they make the dialogue between the affected group, in this case individuals such as myself, who use wheelchairs, and the rest of society more difficult over time. Below are a few things that myself as well as other wheelchair users are tired of hearing:  

1. "Do you know [insert random name]?" 

This is a rather strange phenomenon that occasionally occurs, in which a stranger will, in the midst of a conversation, ask if I know someone else who also happens to use a wheelchair. This laughably assumes that all wheelchair-users somehow know each other and quite possibly share some sort of terrifying hive-mind. I do feel a certain kinship with other wheelchair users and consider myself a member of the disabled community but I do not have an instant, Professor Xaver-esque telepathic knowledge of everyone in a wheelchair within a certain proximity.

2. “Is there a cure for what you have?” 

Once in a while people will curiously ask about my condition which personally, I have no problem discussing but something feels a little odd about this question in particular. It honestly gives the impression that they are actually just wondering if the rolling tragedy that they consider my life to be is, in fact, permanent. For many disabled individuals curing their illness or injury is not an option or daily priority, being accepted and accommodated by society is still a major concern, however. Abled people solely focusing on “fixing” all wheelchair users can be counter productive to the efforts of breaking down the stigma that we face for needing assistive technology.

3. "How fast can you go?" 

Often used as an awkward ice-breaker, this especially eye-roll inducing question asserts that a wheelchair is just some sort of fancy sports car, not an essential mobility device. It would be strange begin a conversation by asking a walking person how fast they can run, the same logic applies. I am grateful for the freedom and mobility that my chair brings me but I consider it to be an extension of my body and believe it should be respected as such. 

4. "My [insert acquaintance] had [insert impairment]." 

This is another peculiar way some individuals attempt to relate, by sharing the fact that someone they vaguely know or are related to has the same or perceived to be similar, disorder as myself. It is even more uncomfortable when they use the word "had", meaning the said random acquaintance is no longer alive. Imagine telling someone who is going through cancer treatment that you knew someone who died from cancer, it's not a very relatable or pleasant sentiment. 

5. "I would kill myself if I had to be in a wheelchair." 

This statement is sometimes intended as a strange compliment but has an extremely negative connotation. It is as if the person is saying that my day to day existence is so unthinkably terrible that they would rather be dead than experience my life, it speaks volumes to they perceive wheelchair users. I do not consider my life to be inherently negative, just simply different and most certainly worth living. I definitely want to be alive, thank you very much.

6. Use of "Dolphin trainer" voice. 

Sometimes I am addressed in a high-pitched, condescending and overly enthusiastic tone that is commonly reserved for infants and porpoises. This comes from the unsettling perception that those who are physically impaired are also mentally impaired, and the even more disturbing perception that those who are actually mentally impaired, should even be talked down to in this manner. 

7. "You are so inspirational!” 

Probably one of the most common and irritating phrases I hear as a disabled person. It is perfectly acceptable to be inspired by something truly remarkable that myself or another disabled individual has done but not just for simply existing or deciding to get out of bed in the morning. It can be rather patronizing to be constantly put on a pedestal for just living my life, I do not want to be worshipped but instead accepted equally in our culture. 

The most important thing to take away from all of this is that disabled people are just that, people; human beings with hopes, ambitions and interests, diverse as the entire range of life. My advice for non-wheelchair users avoiding these, and other micro-aggressions is to think before speaking, never assume and speak to everyone how you would like to be spoken to. It can seem a little tricky at first to understand just what is and isn’t offensive or uncomfortable, but I believe it is imperative that each of us be conscious of the impact of our words and actions. The first step to a better future begins with our everyday interactions.