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15 Common Situations I've Faced as a Wheelchair User

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I’ve found that being in a wheelchair, you have to work extra hard to deal with some of the things life throws at you. Here are just some of the situations I face as a wheelchair user.

1. You’re at bum height all day. Being about 3 feet tall in a wheelchair, you’re in the eyeline of people’s bums. While some may think this has its benefits, it gets pretty boring after a while. You’ve seen literally everything, from that person who decides to shove tissues in their back pocket to the lady who probably should have reconsidered her selection of tights. Communicating with others around you when you’re at bum level can be difficult, seeing as you cannot exactly have a conversation with a bum. If you see someone you know, you can’t just tap them on the bum to get their attention. It’s the awkward arm tap situation… and then it’s even more awkward if you get the wrong person. But that’s another story.

2. People will stop. Right. In. Front. Of. You. Without warning. Especially in shopping centers and for no apparent reason. Maybe they’ve spotted something sparkly in the window, or maybe they’ve just realized they forgot to turn the iron off at home. Whatever the reason, be aware of those in front of you to prevent your face hitting their behind. That isn’t the kind of conversation you want to have with a stranger.

3. You have to be a surveillance agent and scan the pavement for all sorts of obstacles. They could include stones, cigarette ends, raised lips within the pavement as well as uneven surfaces. If you let your guard down for one minute, there’s a high chance you’ll find  yourself flying through the air like Superman as you’ve hit a bump in the road (see what I did there?) You can always try to style it out. Many a time, I’ve sat up and bowed to my unsuspecting audience.

4. People will always ask you to do “wheelies.”  This is where you lift your small front caster wheels off the floor and balance on your big wheels. This gives you automatic cool status, apparently. Personally, it’s something I do if I get bored or if I need to get up or down a step. It’s up to you if you want to show people, but don’t feel like you have to perform like a circus animal.

5. You’ll be told the speed limit around here is 5 mph. Just laugh and move on. You’ll get that a lot!

6. You’ll also be asked “Have you got a license for that thing?” or “Have you passed your driving test?” Either think of a quick comeback, or just smile.

7. You’ll be asked if you know that girl from the wheelchair basketball team who attended the Paralympics. If you do that’s cool, if you don’t, don’t worry. Some people assume if you’re in a chair and she is in a chair, you must know each other, surely? Erm, not necessarily. The disabled community is a very big community. We don’t know everyone, just like you don’t know everyone in the shopping center.

8. You’ll be asked if you are working towards the next Paralympics. Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t. Sports isn’t the be-all and end-all of being in a wheelchair. You could be amazing at art, educated in academics or excel in the computing industry. Your possibilities are endless. If you play a sport, that’s amazing. If not, that’s also fine. If someone asks you if you’re working towards the Paralympics and you happen to play a sport for recreational reasons, then tell them. People are genuinely interested sometimes, even if their opening line can seem a bit insensitive. They may want to come and watch the local team play. Remember, disability is a whole new world to some people.

9. You’ll check out other wheelchair users… not necessarily looking at them (maybe you are, I don’t judge) but admiring their chair. I do this regularly. I’ve recently gotten a new made-to-measure wheelchair (which I’m not afraid to admit I’m in love with) but I still check out others’ wheels and say things like “Nice suspension,” “Look at those casters,” or “Check out the spokes on that. Daymm.” It feels like I’m cheating on my chair… but on a serious note, it can be a good conversation starter with a fellow wheelchair user.

10.  You’ll be asked if you work. For example, I work part time at university and I’ve been asked “So how do you work?” My reply is “Just like everyone else, but I’m around 2 feet lower down than them.” Sometimes, people are genuinely interested and aren’t trying to be funny. Other times, they just want to start a debate about how they think people play the benefits system and the government is going down the pan. If it turns political, I suggest getting out of the situation.

11.  If you are in a relationship with someone who isn’t in a chair, you may be asked how that works in terms of height and even intimacy. If you’re in a relationship and your partner is in a chair too, you’ll be asked all sorts of questions. If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked “So how do you have sex?” I would be a millionaire. Sometimes I’m like “Woooah, you’ve known me 5 minutes and you want to discuss my sex life?” Other times I think “I don’t know you and I’m not sure why you’re asking me this. Would you ask that lady standing over there with the shopping bags these questions? I don’t think so.”  If you’re with someone, you can politely say you need to leave now. If you’re alone, you can say you must be going because you’ve a career to work towards or something like that. You get my drift.

12. You’ll be called “inspirational” and “brave.” I won’t reveal my views on this. I just smile.

13. You’ll have many the arguments with people about whether wheelchair users or strollers have priority on the buses. Don’t get me started…

14. You’ll need to call ahead to some places to check if they are accessible.

15. And on a final positive note, sometimes… just sometimes, you’ll get into attractions on a 2-for-1 basis with your “carer.” Win-win!

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it encapsulates just a few of the things I get asked… a lot. Whether you are a wheelchair user or not, I believe there’s no need to be nasty or hostile towards someone about a well-intended question. But always know where your personal line is… and don’t wheel over it for anyone.

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Originally published: December 11, 2016
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