Why It's OK for Your Child to Ask About My Wheelchair


I’ve lost count of the amount of times young children have come up to me in the supermarket and asked me what I’m sitting in and why.

Just last week, 3-year-old Jimmy happened to be sitting in the shopping cart seat. He caught my eye and waved at me from the yogurt counter. I smiled and waved back. He then proceeded to shout from around 5 meters away about why I rode around in my special “car.” Instantly, Jimmy’s mum hushed him, sympathetically looked at me while blushing, mouthed “I’m so sorry,” and proceeded to push the cart in the opposite direction, calling Jimmy a naughty boy
and saying “You don’t ask people like that why they’re in a wheelchair.”

Firstly, please don’t call Jimmy a naughty boy for inquiring about my special “car.” He is a child and will be inquisitive. It’s part of his development. You’d be concerned if he wasn’t wanting to explore the world around him. Secondly, if Jimmy comes across things that are different and new to him, it will help him to realize the world around him is diverse and beautiful. Jimmy may have the confidence to wave at someone in a chair, whereas other children may be shy or even scared. Let’s face it, the majority of people they see will be walking… this is completely new to them!

As someone who works with children, I can’t begin to tell you how beneficial it is for a child to be able to interact with someone who may be “different” from themselves. It helps them to understand and explore the world. While there are issues surrounding safeguarding and stranger danger, the child may have just wandered up to me without their parents knowing because they’re fascinated with my chair. Just remember, it’s something completely new to them. If the parents are present and verbally let me know they’re OK with their child interacting with me, I’m happy to answer any questions their child has.

A common question I get from children aged 5 and above is “Why don’t your legs work?”
Now, this is a question I have to answer very carefully. While you should never deceive a child, you don’t want to be too graphic. I find a simple “Well I was sick as a baby, so they just haven’t been able to work properly, but it’s OK,” or “My legs don’t really work, so my wheels get me around,” suffices. I always let a child know it’s OK that my legs don’t work and it’s OK that they’ve asked the question. I put a positive spin on it. Doing so not only reassures the child that they aren’t upsetting you, but in turn, it reassures the adult with them. Sometimes, children
ask the questions adults wish they could get an answer to. But as adults, sometimes we put too much thought into the repercussions of our inquiries, whereas children genuinely want to know to learn.

The next question I often receive is along the lines of “How do you move?” I show them. The child may be completely in awe of what they’re seeing, and that may be just enough to satisfy their wondering mind. If not, be prepared for more amazing questions. Some will seem so random but just remember, each question has a reason behind it.

I run a local group for children between the ages of 5-8. Upon starting, the children were very quiet around me. I knew they’d have questions because I’m something different than the stereotypical “norm” they’ve experienced.  So I did an icebreaker session with them. I got the
children to sit in a circle with one child holding a ball which would be passed around. I asked each of them to tell me their name, one thing they liked, one thing they disliked, and one thing they were looking forward to during their summer holidays. This continued around the circle until the ball came back to me, meaning it was my turn. I answered with “My name is Rachel. I like chocolate. I dislike scary spiders, and I’m looking forward to playing wheelchair basketball in the summer.”

A little gasp emerged from some of the children. “You can play basketball in a wheelchair?” he asked.

“Yes, of course you can!” I replied.

This conversation continued for a good 30 minutes, in which time I answered questions such as “How do you get down a curb?” “Do you let people sit on your lap for a ride?” “How fast can you go?” and “Can you do a wheelie?” Comical answers with a serious element go down wonderfully with children. I also got asked numerous times, “Can I have a go?”

Lots of children learn visually (by seeing something happen) and kinesthetically (by physically doing something) which supports their understanding and development of a topic. So, three weeks later, after numerous risk assessments, I brought in two wheelchairs and set up a slalom course for them to complete, in a chair in pairs. One child sits in the chair and navigates through the cones, bumps and ramps while the other child guides their partner by giving visual commands. Then, once one child completes the courses, the other child has a go. They learn effective communication, empathy, team work and a new skill.

A year and a half later, these children see me as “Rachel.” They don’t see me as “the lady in the
wheelchair” (whereas I know some adults still refer to me as this in everyday life.) They always try to hold open the door, as sometimes it can be difficult to navigate through a heavy fire door. They’re always trying to help me out, and they also know I’m an independent lady.

When we’re out and about, they know that staying on the pavement in pairs starting with the smaller children at the front and taller children nearing the back not only helps me to constantly do a head count (which I find myself doing almost every 30 seconds!) but helps me to talk to them properly (as well as ensuring they’re not misbehaving.)

When I’m playing dodgeball, they absolutely love it. Their little legs run like the wind in fear of being caught out… but when they’re out, they’re desperate to help me get their friends out too. See how the dynamics quickly change?

Maybe they don’t know it, but each week they’re learning something new. We play seated volleyball where they cannot use their legs and they have to stay seated on their bums. If the ball goes out, they can’t just stand up and get it. When we’re playing party games such as
dressing up and cutting up the chocolate, they’re wearing gloves to discover how difficult using a knife and fork may be for someone with fine motor skill impairments. I’m not focusing on disability or making it out to be the most important thing in the world, I’m simply informing children there are people out there who may struggle with different things, and that’s OK.

If we have an awareness of each other’s differences and unique characteristics, the world will become a more accepting and inclusive place. At the end of the day, we’re informing and educating the next generation… let’s give them the best possible chance to understand and take on brand new concepts, feelings and experiences. After all, one day they’ll be grown adults. I hope they look back on their experiences and think “I’m glad I learned about that… I’m glad I can try to understand what other people may experience.” An awareness of themselves and awareness of other people… you can’t ask for much more than that.

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