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Observations From a Part-Time Wheelchair User

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I am a part-time wheelchair user; this means that one day I can use my chair, and the next I will be walking with my cane. Being able to use a wheelchair on a part-time basis allows me to manage my energy levels and reduce pain, allowing me to function more effectively in everyday life. I am exactly the same person whether I use my cane or my chair, so why does the behavior of others sometimes change?
Chloe using a wheelchair or crutches.
Chloe using a wheelchair, cane or crutches.

Over the last few years, I have noticed people act differently towards me depending on the equipment I am using at that time. It was when doing my food shopping, of all things, that I realized what these differences were.

I noticed that if I used my cane people didn’t tend to mind. I would get a few inquisitive looks as they tried to figure out why a 19-year-old was using a walking stick, but apart from that it was fine. People in shops would talk to me, tell me how much the item cost and expect me to pay — good job really considering it was my food for the week! Members of the public would treat me like everyone else when navigating the pavement, which could result in a fall if they bumped into me. This isn’t always practical for me, but then again I would much rather be treated like everyone else. What people don’t often realize is that I can be very unsteady on my cane; one small knock and that’s me on the floor! If I am using my cane in public people may question my use of a blue disability badge, not necessarily verbally, but I see the odd looks  in my direction. Yet using a blue badge on a good day means I may be saved from a very painful tomorrow; well, that is the aim.

On the other hand, if I am using my wheelchair it can be a very different story! It is extremely common for people to talk to the person I am with rather than talking to me. “Hello… I’m down here!” which makes me question why. Some may argue that this is due to people not knowing how to respond to someone in a wheelchair, or being worried they would say the wrong thing and offend me. Yet I can assure you I will not be offended to be asked to pay for my weekly shopping! I am completely capable of talking and communicating with you — just talk to me like you would talk to any other person.

Also, when using my wheelchair in public, people often cannot move out of the way quick enough, sometimes moving half a meter away from me. Not only that, people start moving other people out of the way, getting them to completely part the traffic in an attempt to stop me from running them over! Don’t get me wrong, this is a very nice gesture and certainly helps when getting where I need to be. It’s just the complete opposite of using my cane, and it can be amusing to see the looks of panic as people get closer to my chair.

In my local supermarket the sign on the disabled toilet has recently been changed to be more inclusive, making an extremely valid point. It is vital to understand that things like chronic pain are invisible to others, but that does not mean individuals do not need to use an accessible toilet. I feel this can go hand in hand with people who are part-time wheelchair users. Not every disability is visible, and not every disability requires the same mobility aids, changing depending on how the individual is feeling at that exact time. Wheelchair or cane, I am still me. I can talk to you when I am in a wheelchair and I will not run over your foot (well I will try my hardest not to!) as you walk past me.

The final observation I have found when using a wheelchair part-time is something I call “the nod.” Now “the nod” is something that is hard to describe if you don’t use a wheelchair, but it only happens when you go past another person in a wheelchair. Both people in passing (myself and the other wheelchair user) simply nod at each other and smile. I know this sounds simple and it could happen between any two people when passing on the street, yet when I was in France the only nod I got was from another wheelchair user. So why does “the nod” occur? This is hard to say for certain, yet it seems to be some kind of mutual respect, maybe “I know what it’s like” kind of respect. However, when I’ve attempted “the nod” to a fellow wheelchair user while using a cane, it hasn’t had the same effect, so maybe it’s a wheelchair thing.

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