I’m a part time wheelchair user. And I’ve found that the days I use the chair are 10 times more emotionally draining than those I do not, because everyone feels the need to comment on my wheelchair, my choice to use it, the fact that I am sitting, the list goes on. And when I say that everyone has something to say, I do mean everyone. Once, 6 different people made comments on my 25 minute public transit commute, only to arrive at work and have three more coworkers chime in. And when I don’t use the chair for a stretch of time, there’s a lot of “where’s the chair” inquiries. The answer? I’m just not using it. For me, it really is that simple. But for others, it’s not. Regardless of an individuals answer, the point is they shouldn’t have to have an answer. On principle, it’s none of your damn business.
My mobility is not casual conversation. The fact that in an abled-bodied person’s world it is gives way to glaringly uncomfortable privilege differentials. After all, I’m the one in the hot seat- pun intended- it’s my mobility and my choices in question. In my eyes the topic of mobility specifics is a little more personal than how much money I make, and a little less than the details of my sex life. Even if it’s a seemingly harmless question, like “is… this…new?” (an actual question I was recently asked by a coworker who had yet to see me roll), the call to engage is tiring. And in this case, it wasn’t harmless. “This” is a wheelchair. Not herpes. You can say it at work. Erasure is still erasure, however casual. Imagine if that was the response to a new haircut. It would immediately be insulting.
When I share my distress about this with other abled’s, even the most empathetic fall prey to defending the commenter, perhaps because they can relate on some level to the squeamishness. “They’re just trying to connect!” they’ll insist. Or “They’re just curious!” and, you know, that may very well be true. But the former implies that their desire to “connect” outweighs my personal space, that I should be ready to “connect” at a moment’s notice, regardless of what may be happening in my world, simply because another person wants to engage.
Furthermore, such comments and questions are not actually a want to connect. I know because Americans are some of the most connection-fearing people ever, myself included. Folks will stand on a rumbling bus ride before sitting next to a stranger. “Staring”, or really just looking at another person at all, is considered intensely rude. This is true even if what is drawing the attention is positive, like a happy baby. So no, my wheelchair does not just suddenly inspire people to make best friends and share in one another’s souls. And in this example, the coworker in question has been particularly cold to me. This was the longest exchange we’d shared in 10 months of working together, not for my lack of effort. And still she presumed an entitlement to this particular discussion simply because it struck her in the moment.
In response to the curiosity, I’m curious about a lot of things: Why is my bus driver so grumpy? Is that hot person in shouting distance single? But in these matters and so many others, I know to be curious in silence. Partly because it’s not polite, and partly because my voicing such thoughts is not actually conducive to anything for myself or others who may be involved. Yes, mobility inquiries sting personally, but also there’s no real means to an end. So what if the wheelchair is new? So what if it’s not? The lady asking didn’t really care one way or another, because one way or another, it doesn’t inform a view of me or our relationship.
It is most likely that this woman and so many others feel a level of discomfort, or at the very least, surprise, in having to interact with “this” and figure “this” into their day. And the only way they know to manage this is to put some of their discomfort or surprise onto the shoulders of someone else: I just happen to be the closest receptacle.
So, with all of that in mind I made a flowchart*. Yes, a flowchart. What else does one do when feeling stressed?? This is meant for whomever. It made me feel better to see in front of me a visual representation of my frustration paired with a solution. Because there is a solution, and I can guarantee you that it is not minimizing the exasperation of your wheelchair using friend with justification of curiosity, connection, or whatever else. I hope this helps change even just a few interactions. Because we all have responsibility here, but your curiosity is yours to manage, not mine.
Today, this is where she stands.
(Or sits. When she wants. See above 😉 )
*If you or your friend would like to share the flowchart on social media, in a class, or with any other group of people, please credit Where She Stands. If you would like to use it in an academic paper, a presentation, or any other formal capacity, please reach out to me first.