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What Halloween Helped Me See About Using a Wheelchair

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October: the month of Halloween, pumpkins, costumes, and endless candy. The ultimate game of dress up in search of the ultimate reward: candy. It’s a dream come true. When I think back to Halloweens past, I remember a young girl with rheumatoid arthritis defying all odds, and who shared so much excitement with her friends as All Hallows Eve creeped closer and closer. With each passing day though, this little girl’s anxiety grew and intensified.

Trick-or-treating for me and my tired arthritic joints meant I had a lot of walking to do in order to collect candy and keep up with my friends. As a child, I remember weighing my options for every Halloween. I could a) sit it out and hand out candy, but miss out on collecting my own; b) participate in agony as I try and keep up with everyone; or c) use a wheelchair and fear being ostracized from the rest of the kids. Option A would never work, it seemed too boring for me and I wanted my outfit to be seen. This little girl didn’t spend countless hours on a costume getting everything just right, to then sit in a chair and miss showing it off. Option B’s aftermath would cause me to experience excruciating pain as a result of trying to keep up with everyone — that won’t do. So I opted for option C, using a wheelchair.

At first glance, the anxiety may seem minimal or even nonsensical. What no one seemed to understand, though, was that every time I sat down in that wheelchair, it was never just me. Instead, I dealt with the very harsh reality of being treated differently, judged, and having limitations placed on me. Growing up, I was aware that my wheelchair and I had quite the love-hate relationship. I loved it because it made it possible for me to not have to watch from the sidelines, but participate and keep up in my own way. I loved it a little less, though, when I would be subjected to the treatment that came with being in a wheelchair.

At the time, I felt as though my chair was putting limits on me and made me different from others. All I wanted was to blend in and have fun. Those who have experienced sitting in a wheelchair can agree that it often carries a strong stigma. I dreaded the countless looks from people, some even pointing at me, while others stared. Many seemed to look at me with the most curious expressions on their face, as though questioning what someone who looks “fine” on the outside was doing in a wheelchair. Did they think I was a faker? Did they think it was a cry for attention? Did they think I was just being lazy? The anxiety grew and intensified.

As a result, I have found myself trying to justify my need of a wheelchair. I have always felt strongly that society’s perception of me morphs as I sit down in that chair. I may look fine, but that’s what years of emotional suppression and relentless optimism can do. I suffered deeply, physically and emotionally, and I needed my accommodations — but the judgment from strangers has been unwarranted. Realizing how people were treating me, I decided I would use the wheelchair only when absolutely necessary, and I made it a point to refuse to be photographed while in it. I imagined that if it wasn’t documented, it could be erased from my memory. To think that for over a decade I spent so much time and energy dodging pictures and trying to be invisible. Yet despite my feelings towards the wheelchair, come Halloween there I was dressed and ready to roll — pun intended.

Looking back now and reflecting over years and years of this wheelchair anxiety I had created, I have had an epiphany that I want to share with everybody and anybody who uses a wheelchair. Throughout the years, I learned that my wheelchair doesn’t represent me or anything about me. It is an object. Rather than having such hostile feelings towards my wheelchair, I should have learned to really love it. If anything, my wheelchair is an amazing and positive instrument that helps me live my life. I am so thankful to have it. Without my wheelchair, I would have never been able to trick-or-treat throughout my childhood. My wheelchair has blessed me with the ability to participate in so many beautiful experiences, and made it possible for me to make so many memories, rather than sitting on the sidelines missing out on things I love.

I realized it is time to stop fighting this internal war of me against the wheelchair. So if this Halloween — or at any point in life — you find yourself struggling to use your wheelchair or any sort of aid for any reason, my best advice is to drop the negative and embrace all the good it can do for you. Because it’s exactly that, an aid. An aid to make sure we get to where we need to, and enjoy all the beautiful and incredible things life has to offer.

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Originally published: October 18, 2016
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