It seems to come as a shock to many able-bodied individuals when a person with disabilities rises from a wheelchair or an electric cart to grab an item off a tall shelf at the grocery store or sidle into a vehicle. Though communities familiar with disabilities are often more understanding, it’s rarely a good situation when someone who doesn’t understand questions the action.
Some wheelchair users can walk. Everyone should know this, but those of us with limited mobility who only periodically need to rely on a wheelchair often face challenges when we take the initiative to do things for ourselves. Here’s a brief guide, based on personal experiences, for handling these sensitive situations.
Explaining the Hard Questions
In a perfect world, assistance-device users of all stripes would never have to explain themselves. People wouldn’t look down on those who have limited mobility or act flustered around them. We all hope to live in that world, but for now, we often have to answer challenges and hard questions about our disabilities. We can always just brush off and ignore comments or questions, but that doesn’t tackle the heart of the problem. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects against discrimination on many levels but not the curiosity or even the contempt that can seem to follow.
It’s difficult to give advice on this topic because we all get a bit jaded after the 30th time of explaining something along the lines of “I have an injury, illness or disease that limits my mobility” — especially if they expect us to apologize for being in the way or plead that we be left alone to shop or wait in line. Still, each person who we do educate is one less question for someone else.
Children who make snide comments often take lessons to heart when you’re willing to take the time to explain to them what is going on. Adults may get defensive, and it’s often best to shrug away any odd looks and only attempt to explain if they answer or otherwise engage. Engagement includes making snide comments about how you’re only in the wheelchair due to your weight, in my experience. Others may not feel that way.
Fostering Meaningful Interaction
Those comments are often the toughest thing we face outside of the physical challenges associated with things others take for granted. They can walk for hours at the local superstore, they can reach top shelves or use ladders or get assistance without having to wedge devices between displays to find an associate. They don’t have to crawl up the Capitol steps to make their voices heard at rallies. When you discover how to point this out, they also often get a lot less snide and a lot more caring. And if not, at least you tried.
Whenever possible, tackle these types of comments with a smile. Don’t be afraid to say: “Today, I have the ability to get up and reach this shelf. Tomorrow, I might not. I live my life day to day. I appreciate the little victories that I can make for myself. Thank you for your concern.” A simple phrase and a few seconds of your time can change their perspectives, and no one should suffer in silence when they hear others speak through outright ignorance.
People with limited mobility deserve the same civil rights as everyone else. Some of us feel we can be ambassadors to the able-bodied and help explain things they have no experience with by dint of our backgrounds, training or skills. Others would prefer simply to be left alone, and that is a perfectly reasonable response. Many of us want to just go about our lives without having extra concerns tacked onto the challenges we face. We can choose how to promote awareness on our own terms.
That might mean just being ourselves and being visible. It can mean not acting timid or afraid when you do have to stand up to grab something or move between assistance devices and vehicles. It can mean confronting individuals or simply saying “thank you for your concern” and moving on. We promote awareness by being part of our community, but we’re not the politeness police. Those who feel they can educate should, and those who do not are still doing the community a service by just being as active and visible as they can be.
Sometimes, it goes beyond snide comments. Sometimes people do get offended, get pushy or want to prove your disability for themselves. Unfortunately, hate crimes happen. Over 40 states now have laws related to hate crimes on the books, and all must comply with the ADA. When this happens in public places, it falls on us to report it. Hate crimes against the disabled are very real. Businesses and consumers must do all they can to prevent them.
Proving a hate crime is not an easy task. Standing up for the limited-mobility community is challenging. It falls on all of us to continue to push for equality at work, at home, and when we go out and interact with others. That doesn’t mean being pushy; it just means doing what we feel is right and being a visible and contributing part of society. That alone is a great challenge that everyone should feel victorious in on a daily basis.