“Why are you in a wheelchair?”

QuestionMarkSomeone asked me yesterday “Why are you in a wheelchair?” I looked at them bemused for a moment; I’ve been asked this question many times before and almost every time I’ve changed my response:

“F*** me, I’m in a wheelchair?!”
“Well I lifted myself out of bed and just got in”
“I found it in a dust bin”
“I was born with it, Mums labour was hell”

This time however I gave them the honest answer “I was born with Spina bifida”. They didn’t ask too many questions after that, in fact, I’ve hardly spoken to them since. I got the impression they wanted a more elaborate story on a horrific accident…sorry to disappoint. It did make me wander though, about why people ask and should wheelchair users give them an honest answer?

I know some wheelchair users are often offended if they are not asked straight out; they feel that people are talking about them behind their backs and I can, I think, relate to this. It drives me crazy when I’m out with my Mother or worse, a friend and the lady in the lift turns to THEM and asks THEM what’s wrong with me. Well apparently I’m bloody invisible, that’s what’s wrong with me! The thing is; I don’t feel my wheelchair defines me as a person, nor do I feel it’s an important story to tell. I don’t think I have ever turned round to a friend and told them my story without them asking. In fact many of my friends have gone months without even mentioning my four wheels.

My boyfriend who I’ve known for several months now has never asked me what’s ‘wrong’ with me, maybe he doesn’t see the wrong, I don’t know. You see, I think that’s why some people ask, they see ‘it’ as a barrier to getting to know a person properly, then again (and this is the most common case I feel) maybe it is just a mans curiosity…and what’s wrong with curiosity?

Next time I’m asked, I will reply frankly, I’ll leave the bad stuff out, I’ll give my frills and cotton candy story on how and why I’m disabled. People don’t want to know the hard stuff; they want to hear a story book answer. Maybe that’s my problem with that question, I feel I have to lie to cover up certain aspects of myself, after all, phatic conversation doesn’t call for the details.

Ali x

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3 Responses to ““Why are you in a wheelchair?””

  1. Penny Says:

    I don’t know; I think it’s the tone in which the question is asked.

    People are curious by nature. It comes down to what do disabled people want? Do they want people to pretend they’re not in a wheelchair? Or for people to acknowledge that they do have a disability? And how’s that to be done, other than by looking and asking?

    Those of us who do not have a bodily disability don’t really know how we should react without offending. We are curious to see a person in a wheelchair, to see how they maneuver in a chair around the obvious obstacles (most of them people).

    Some of us are saddened that a person is disabled, because we fear they are unhappy and that life is that much more hard. People don’t want to face unhappiness or be rude and stare (though they really want to), so that look away or pretend they don’t see the disabled person.

    It’s not easy for some of us when we see a disabled person. Some people are bolder and just come right out and ask why are you in the chair. It’s the easiest way to ask, the most ready formation of words that comes to mind. All in all, we just don’t know. Take notice or look away and pretend? Seems either way, we offend.

  2. analysingali Says:

    Hi Penny, thanks for reading, really interested in your response.

    I suppose the problem is that peoples reactions are always different, whether it’s their reaction to somebody in a wheelchair or their reaction to marmite, no response is the same. I personally feel very comfortable with people acknowledging my chair, but at the same time I am not offended if ‘it’ is not registered.

    Curiosity is said to have killed the cat, but I really do challenge this…what is wrong with curiosity? It’s how we learn everything! A baby is curious over what will happen if they stick mud in their mouth, they do it, they learn. One thing that gets on my wick is when a wheelchair user claims a young child is staring at them…yes they probably are, but staring back and acting like a ‘baddy’ is no way to handle this, I just smile back and 9 times out of 10 I’ll get a grin in return. It’s how people deal with curiosity which makes the difference.

    Your comment has really made me think about my reaction to OTHER peoples reactions to my chair; It’s true, I have been offended by the odd stare (in fact a blog is coming up about a certain incident involving a person staring at me for a tad too long- either she thought I was Victoria Beckham or I had something in my teeth, who knows!) but I think about how I would react to people with disabilities if I were able bodied and yes, I probably would stare, it’s human nature. Nothing can be done to help it…if people want to know how to handle seeing someone with a disability here’s what I’d say:

    Acknowledge the person in the wheelchair, if you’re going to stare, stare at the person, not the chair. Yes it’s pretty, glitzy and shiny but you won’t get much conversation out of it!

    Also: don’t be afraid of conversation, it won’t hurt! I’ve struck up many conversations when people have said “I love your purple wheels” A comment like that is received with much more warmth then engine noises, which I must say would be in my room 101!

    Ali x

    P.S. My Mother read your comment and thought you got the predicament spot on, she often asks me how to react to ‘situations’ because she fears she will offend….and she’s been living with me and my chair (whose name is Violet by the way) for nearly twenty years!

  3. Penny Says:

    Hi, Ali!

    I love your response and really appreciate your taking the time… Violet, what a cool name for your chair!

    You have a lovely sense of humor and a vibrant spirit that comes across in the words you write–how you use those words. And that Victoria Beckham comment just tickles me.

    I’m definitely learning a few things from you. Your suggestions of how those who happen upon a person in a wheelchair can respond is quite useful to me. I’ve gotten to the point in my life (I’m 47) where it is easier to say hello or compliment someone on what they are wearing rather than pretend they aren’t there.

    As to your other email…You are sooooo welcome. I love your new header colors.

    Hugs to you, Ali, for sharing your experiences. You are certainly enlightening a lot of people. Bravo and hugs to you! I’ll be checking back to read more of what you have to say.

    Do keep writing! Oh, and please tell your mom I said Hi! …Penny

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