It doesn’t matter how we got like this. Really. Are you asking because you want to know or because you need to? If you’re just sitting next to one of us on the train, or taking our order at a cafe, you don’t actually need to know. If we’ve actually met and had a conversation beyond “Do you want honey with your chai?” then perhaps it gets a little more relevant. It might come up in conversation, and when it does, we’ll be happy to tell you. It’s just not a very good opening line.
We heart our chairs. I’ve had five wheelchairs in my lifetime and I’ve loved each one as much as the last. I’ve had my current chair for almost 17 years. Based on the recommendation that they should be replaced every seven or so years, this old girl is about 162 wheelchair-years old. She’s well worn and well loved. One day soon she’ll need replacing, and I’ll come to love that one too, I’m sure. My chair is the last thing I touch before I climb into bed at night, and the first when I climb out. And, let’s face it. without our chairs, there’d be no getting out of bed at all for a lot of us. We are not, as we so often see written, “wheelchair bound”. We are liberated by our chairs. They give us the freedom to be who we are, and we love them for it.
We don’t mind if you ask us to go for a walk. Seriously, there’s no need to avoid saying things like “I must be running along,” or “Let’s go for a walk.” Those kinds of phrases are a part of everyday language, and because we live in the real world too, we’re really not that sensitive. I have a blind friend who once told me that the most annoying thing that ever happens to her is people apologising for asking her if she sees their point. Touche.
We have heard that joke before. You know, the one you were just thinking of. The one about drink driving, or whether or not we have a licence. Even the one about putting a V8 engine on the chair. Heard it. We’ve heard them all, so forgive us if your brilliant one-liner only elicits a polite smile. Sorry about that.
We are not on the tram so that you can hang your shopping bags on us. Our chairs are a part of us and a part of our personal space. Leaning on someone’s wheelchair is a bit like leaning on someone’s shoulder. You wouldn’t do it to a stranger, or someone you’d only just met. And I’m willing to bet you wouldn’t hang your full-to-the-brim enviro-bags on someone’s conveniently outstretched arm. Your shopping may be heavy, but our chairs are not shelves.
Just because we are hanging out with a non-disabled person doesn’t mean they are a carer. Disabled people have friends, partners, kids, parents, siblings and families just like everyone else. Quite often these people are hanging out with us because they like to, not because we need looking after, or because they are kind, generous souls. It’s annoying when people assume the only reason someone is hanging out with you is because they have to. Many of us do have personal assistants to help out with some stuff we can’t do, but most of the time the people hanging out with us are just our mates.
We’re into all the same stuff you are. OK, maybe not exactly the same stuff (I’m really not into snowboarding, if I’m honest), but you know what I mean. We don’t all think about disability all the time. I like knitting and crafty things, as well as disability theory and politics, feminist things, comedy things and fashion things, too. I’m really lucky to have a job where I get to be quite nerdy about disability culture and politics as editor of Ramp Up. We can talk about everything from sport to politics, television to weird things non-disabled people say to us. (Not you, obviously, you’re lovely.) Having contact with so many different disabled folks in Australia reminds me how different we all are, even though we have some experiences in common.
Your kids are going to stare. And that’s perfectly OK. When you look different to everyone else they’ve ever seen, kids will naturally stare. There’s no need to be embarrassed about it or consider it bad behaviour. Kids are interested in anything that’s different to the norm. And the thing is, if you tell them not to stare, or discourage them from asking questions because you think it might upset us, you’re teaching them that looking different is something to be ashamed of. It’s not. We’d much rather have an honest conversation with your kids than have them shuffled away from us like we might bite them. Besides, eventually they’ll say something really cute and funny, like “Are you imaginary?” or “Why are you wearing shoes?”
Feel free to offer us a hand, but don’t get too upset if we say no. If you see someone who looks like they’re struggling to do something, it’s very tempting to jump in and do it for them. But you really shouldn’t. It’s absolutely fine to offer your assistance, but don’t be surprised if it isn’t required. Sometimes we look pretty clumsy doing everyday stuff, like shopping or knitting on the tram, because we might do it differently to the way you do it. But we’ve had years of practice at being us and we’re generally in control of what we’re doing. Make the offer by all means, but don’t be upset if we say “thanks, but no thanks.”
We don’t all know each other. No, I don’t know Jenny, the girl on your street who uses a wheelchair too.
We are not brave. Among the aforementioned weird things some non-disabled folk like to say to us are things like “Oh you’re so brave/courageous/inspirational!” We’re not, really. We’re just living our lives like everyone else. Just as you’ve worked out the easiest and most effective way to get along in life, so have we. There’s no need to praise us for just going about our everyday business. Going to the shops to buy milk doesn’t take any more courage for me than it does for you.
If you can use the regular loos, and they’re free, don’t use the disabled ones. OK, we get that not all disabilities are visible and there are all sorts of reasons someone might need a bit of extra space. A friend of mine is diabetic, and she prefers to use the disabled toilets so she has a bit more room to inject her insulin. That’s fair enough. But when we wait outside for 20 minutes and you stroll out with a newspaper and a completed sudoku under your arm, you probably weren’t checking your blood-sugar levels. If the other toilets are occupied, and you’re going to be quick, go ahead. Just remember that needing to poo is not an access requirement. Thanks.