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The 3 Kinds of Reactions I Get When I Use My Wheelchair

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As a person who often needs a wheelchair but not always, I’m in the position to be able to experience different reactions from the public when I’m out and about. I’ve found that people’s reactions to dealing with a person in a wheelchair can be loosely grouped into three categories: The Over-compensators, The Knowledgable and The Downright Ignorant.

The Over-compensators

We live in what we like to call a more diverse and understanding world. We claim to look past people’s race, gender, disability and instead, base our opinions on a person’s kindness, humor, and what they can offer us and the world.

Sometimes I think that this “new” way of looking at people, along with all the “new” do’s and don’ts, is too much for some people to keep up with. I think they are so terrified of doing or saying the wrong thing that they go overboard, and it leads to embarrassment.

Those who over-compensate often mean well. They see me coming in my wheelchair and their initial reaction is to help as much as possible. Most of the time, I can see the panic on their faces as they mentally try to work out what moves would be best for the situation — and I do feel for them. They just want to do the right thing; they want to get out of your path so that you can easily glide through, they want to move the chair that’s in the way because they know you won’t be able to do it. It’s the manner in which they do these things that causes the embarrassment.

I find they can be a little dramatic when trying to help. I once had a man who walked into the middle of the road, stopping the traffic, in order to allow me to continue on a narrow pavement in Central London. Another time, there was a very nice lady who stood in the middle of a BHS cafe and asked everybody, very loudly, to tuck in their chairs or stand to let me through. Again, I cannot emphasis enough that these people meant well,  but their actions only seemed to scream at everyone: “Look! She’s disabled and using a wheelchair, we must all inconvenience ourselves so she is able to get around as much as possible. Why? Because society tells us we have to!”

These people just want to help and that is greatly appreciated. I can’t help but think that if society were a bit easier on them, if disabled people were portrayed as normal rather than abnormal, then people would know how to help and understand that we don’t want everybody falling over themselves for us.

It’s about education and changing people’s perceptions of what a disability is. Just because some of us have to use a wheelchair doesn’t mean we have a right to use the pavement first, or to disturb a whole restaurant while trying to get to a table. We deserve to receive and should use the same manners and courtesy as anybody else and I don’t think enough is done to convey that message.

The Knowledgeable

What a breath of fresh air it is to encounter somebody who knows what a disability is and how to act around a disabled person!

I’ve found that people who know about disability are often those who have in some way experienced it. Perhaps their partner is disabled, or their parent or friend. After all, who can claim to have really understood anything without having experienced it themselves?

They know that you are capable of being a functioning human being. They know they don’t need to talk to you like a child (just because my legs sometimes do not work doesn’t mean I’m not intelligent or able to hold an adult conversation!) They help if they need to they leave you alone when you’re doing fine. They make you feel like a human, because you aren’t defined by your disability and knowing that they get that is great!

The Downright Ignorant

I’m not going to rant about these people, because I feel that doesn’t achieve anything. If you have a disability, I’m sure you’ve come across somebody who is ignorant. It’s frustrating and demoralizing in equal measure and in the past, I have been known to call out these people and have a mighty row in the middle of a shop floor. I’ve grown out of this because, as I’ve said, I’ve realized it doesn’t help the situation at all.

Those who are ignorant are the kind of people who know you are there but let the door slam on you and proceed to watch as you struggle through. They are the people who see my young age and assume I’m lying (as if I just love to spend my time in a wheelchair) or who mutter under their breath as I pull into a disabled parking space, music blaring, and throw my badge onto the dashboard.

Sadly, these people do exist.

Again, I want to emphasize that I’m not expecting any special attention from anyone just because I have a disability. I just want common courtesy. I’ll hold a door open for anyone, disabled or not. It may be that some of these people are just ignorant in general, but some have a preconception of what a disability is and what a disabled person should look like. If you don’t fit that mold, in their mind you don’t have a disability. That’s just disappointing and sad. It highlights that there is not enough awareness, not enough knowledge in our society and until this is tackled, nothing is going to change.

I’m an advocate for education, in any form. I think knowledge is one of the most important things a person can have and my self-taught knowledge about disability (stemmed from my own diagnosis) should be shared as often as possible. I don’t like to preach and I won’t shove this down people’s throats, but with the right attitude, I really do believe society’s perception of disability can be changed.

Getty image by Apeyron.

Originally published: November 13, 2018
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