Let's Change the Way We Talk About Disability


I recently came across an article titled “Wheelchair Bound Boy Gets a Special School Bus Costume for Halloween.” When I first read this, I was annoyed by two things.

1) None of my Halloween costumes were this dope when I was a kid. I was the tooth fairy one year which was pretty creative, but it did not make the news. Um, hello dad… what do you have to say about that?

2) “Wheelchair bound” is not a way I or many members of the disability community want to be described.

If you come across an article about someone in a wheelchair, chances are “wheelchair bound” is in the title. It is outdated and degrading and I’m not a fan. It makes me think of a helpless individual in a wheelchair who stares out the window all day.

I am not “bound” to my wheelchair. I am sitting on the couch using it as a foot rest as I type. Society has placed such a negative connotation on wheelchairs, making it seem like they are the limiting factor in the equation, when actually it’s the opposite.

My wheelchair is my freedom. It allows me to get out of bed in the morning and the ability to move through the world in a dignified way. Without it I would be unable to leave my house, go to work, go out in Wrigleyville, get my eyebrows done or travel the world. And unfortunately this is a reality for the millions of people globally that do not have access to a wheelchair.

Don’t get me wrong, being a wheelchair user comes with a number of frustrations. I wish my chair was 10 pounds lighter and didn’t squeak like a mouse at times, but I am very fortunate for what it allows me to do.

I use a wheelchair and that is not something I can change. What we can change is society’s portrayal and perception of people with disabilities. Let’s give it a try, shall we?

Shannon at the beach.
Shannon at the beach.

Instead of:

“A wheelchair bound girl, Shannon Kelly, traveled to six countries in one summer.”

Let’s say:

“World traveler Shannon Kelly visited six countries this summer in her wheelchair.”

The second sentence makes the story less about the wheelchair and more about me. There are way more interesting things about me besides the fact that I’m a wheelchair user. I’ll name a few:

  • I love the earth — who wants to go to an earthship with me?
  • I’m currently trying to convince my mom to let us have chickens in the backyard (it’s not going well)
  • I will always support Bernie Sanders and even tried to name our dog after him
  • If my eyebrows are not done, chances are I’m not having a good day
  • Panda Express is my guilty pleasure
Shannon on a bridge in Amsterdam.
Shannon on a bridge in Amsterdam.

Besides using more positive language in regards to describing wheelchair users, we also have a lot of work to do in order to make society more inclusive. Improving accessibility will go a long way in helping people with disabilities be seen as capable and independent individuals. We deserve equal access to things like:

  • Public transportation: Currently only 70 percent of Chicago’s CTA trains are accessible and the city has a plan to make them all accessible — over the next 20 years.
  • Housing options: There are accessible housing options in Chicago, but they are normally newly constructed high rises which are extremely pricey. We deserve affordable housing that meets our needs.
  • Employment opportunities: While the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits companies from discriminating against applicants requesting reasonable accommodations, there is a very high unemployment rate among people with disabilities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that “18.7 percent of persons with a disability were employed, and in contrast, the employment-population ratio for those without a disability was 65.7 percent”
  • Social activities: I’ve faced many barriers when it comes to attending sporting events, concerts and just local bars. Being social and doing fun things is important! People with disabilities should not be excluded from this aspect of life.

Changing the face of disability in society is a pretty big undertaking, but luckily I don’t have to do it alone. The wheelchair community is united when it comes to this issue and is determined to show people what we are capable of doing.

Shannon and a friend hanggliding.
Shannon and a friend hanggliding.

Earlier this year the Rollettes, a wheelchair dance team launched their “Be Boundless” campaign to celebrate our strengths as a community and to show the world we are not wheelchair bound. Hundreds of people shared their stories on social media with the hashtag #BeBoundless18.

Please take what you’ve read and be an ally in helping people with disabilities thrive in society. Be mindful about the language you use to talk about disability in order to help us change our narrative into a more positive one.

Shannon and a friend riding horses.
Shannon and a friend riding horses.
Image Credits: Shannon Kelly

This story originally appeared on Write With Shan.


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