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When People Assume I'm Incompetent Because of My Power Wheelchair

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I didn’t start life with a disability. For almost 40 years, I enjoyed the privilege of having an intact, healthy, functional carbon-based unit with which to navigate the world. Society is designed for such a body, so going just about anywhere was easy and required little thought. Then, at 38 years old, I suddenly developed a life-threatening illness that ultimately rendered me permanently disabled and requiring a power wheelchair for mobility. It took me a long time to relearn how function and navigate in this world in this new body and mode of transport. Every aspect of living my life has been impacted, and almost every task requires more time, energy and forethought. I spent years in rehab, have risen to all the challenges I’ve faced, and adapted to almost every seemingly impossible situation I’ve encountered. Yet, people often treat me as if I am incapable of making safe and healthy decisions for myself, and it aggravates me every time!

The very first thing I noticed when I returned to the community as a disabled power wheelchair user was the difference in the way strangers treated me. When I was non-disabled, no one paid much attention to what I was up to, especially when I was doing what most average people were doing, like walking down the street or getting groceries. As soon as I became disabled, all the “helpful,” sympathetic, angry or “holier-than-thou” strangers seemed to come out of the woodwork.

Before I was disabled, traveling down the side of the road with no sidewalk in my suburban neighborhood would not have gotten a second glance. Yesterday, it prompted a man to stop his vehicle in the middle of the road, so he could roll down his window and admonish me for not using the sidewalk on the other side. Before I was disabled, my dog barking at someone else’s dog while on a walk would have been ignored, or met with an irritated head shake from the other dog walker. When it happened while I was using my wheelchair, I was chastised and told I shouldn’t be walking a dog that big.

I’ve been told I shouldn’t use the sidewalk, shouldn’t use the bicycle lane, shouldn’t ride on the grass, should slow down, should go around, should bring a caregiver, and on and on. And if that isn’t irritating enough, there are also those who assume I am intellectually or cognitively disabled as well. They speak loudly and slowly at me, question my right to be out by myself, use exaggerated cartoony facial expressions or gestures, and even talk to my companion instead of directly to me.

After a decade of frustrating, irritating, demoralizing, and sometimes enlightening experiences related to my disabilities, I’ve decided that how I’m treated by the public is all about the chair. What is it about the power wheelchair that makes so many people come to these conclusions? I know manual wheelchair users and many other people with disabilities also encounter this, but from what I’ve experienced and heard from others, the power chair is a magnet for ignorant strangers. It’s like they assume that if I am incapable of physically propelling myself through life, I must also be cognitively incapable of doing so.

I used to speak up every time, explaining my actions, in an attempt to defend my rights as well as to educate the offender. Most times, now, I just don’t bother. Through multiple experiences, I learned that 1) If I argued every time something like this occurred, I would spend 50% of my time arguing with strangers, and I have much better things to do. 2) Most of the people who deliberately say something angry or judgemental are incapable, at that moment, of learning anything from the exchange. So, why expend the energy? 3) It is not my responsibility to educate people about disability, or about how to treat others with respect. I will happily do it if I feel you’re receptive and well-intentioned. But if you’re an adult and haven’t learned common courtesy by now, I’m not certain anything I say will change your basic character.

I guess what I’m saying is this: Disabled people are people, just like everyone else. It is impossible to tell what a person is or isn’t capable of by what they look like or how they get around. A power wheelchair does not automatically indicate that the user is cognitively impaired or in need of supervision. And above all, if poking your nose into the business of a non-disabled person is generally considered rude, it’s equally as rude to do it with a disabled person. So, if you feel compelled to make assumptions when you encounter a power wheelchair user just going about their day, please assume the individual is as cognitively aware and capable as you are. Before you speak up, ask yourself, “If they weren’t in a wheelchair, would I make this comment?” And please, whatever you decide, just don’t tell me what to do. Whether or not you approve of how or where I am using my wheelchair does not interest me in the least. There is always a reason for my decisions. You just may not be aware of them.

Originally published: December 9, 2020
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