Most people may not realize how rude they appear to those of us in wheelchairs. I was reminded just how rude people can be when I went to a local church festival in the town where I live. Other than my girlfriend, son and mother-in-law who came with me, I didn’t know a single soul at the festival. Still, I couldn’t help but notice how much these people like to stare!
In just one day, I had various individuals from one church festival commit all the major no-nos an able-bodied person can commit. Granted, these grievous acts weren’t all committed by the same person, but the fact that they were committed at all is just damn annoying. It’s a symbol to how little progress has been made in allowing the able-bodied community to understand those of us with disabilities.
I don’t look weird. I’m a chubby guy, with dark hair. I have decent control of my arms…Well, enough to drive my wheelchair around. I don’t appear to be falling out of my wheelchair or any of that fun stuff. I’m just your average guy who happens to sit all the time instead of standing. So, why is it that people not only have to give me “looks” or stare downs, but they have to give me dirty looks?
I can understand when little kids stare at me. I’m used to it and actually, I encourage it. This shows interest in my wheelchair and learning about it. Unfortunately, parents often say things in shushed whispers like “don’t stare at that handicapped person” (did I mention I hate the word handicapped?! – it’s way too outdated) or they yank them away from me like I’m a diseased parasite about to spread my infectious wheelchair-itis onto their precious little one.
This is the perfect opportunity for a lesson in compassion and understanding. If you have a child who is staring at someone in a wheelchair, ask the person in the wheelchair (politely) if your child can ask a question or two. More often than not, the person will say yes. Occasionally, you’ll get someone who is either in a hurry (hey, we have lives, too!) or who is just a jerk. Don’t chalk it up to the behavior of all of us. If I have the time, I’d gladly answer questions from an inquisitive kid instead of letting their parents assume why I’m in a wheelchair or letting a parent give them the wrong information about people in wheelchairs.
For those who wish to tell their children about people in wheelchairs themselves or for those who aren’t kids, but still like to stare, here is a guide of dos and don’ts in relation to how those of us in wheelchairs like to be treated.
Don’t Use Me as an Arm-Rest – I am not your leaning post. I was relaxing in the shade at the hot festival when I felt pressure on my handle-bars. Yes, that pressure moves my entire chair. Come to find out, some yahoo I don’t even know was resting themselves on my wheelchair, all propped up against it. Let’s just say they weren’t exactly thrilled when I moved forward and they almost fell on their face.
My wheelchair is pretty much an extension of “my” body. You wouldn’t let anyone lean on your shoulders, especially if you didn’t know them. I don’t like people touching my wheelchair because not only is it a part of me, it’s also an expensive piece of equipment. If you lean on the wrong part of my wheelchair it will break, and you can guarantee I’ll be sending the bill to whoever broke the chair.
Don’t Point your Finger at Me! – I mean c’mon! You don’t like being pointed at either. It’s bad enough you have to be staring at me, but do you have to point? On the other hand, now everyone knows you’re being ignorant and somewhat prejudice, because they’ll see you pointing at me, too. So, go ahead. Make yourself look bad.
Don’t Kick, Hit or Throw Things at My Wheelchair – Some kids, not much younger than my son (he’s 13), decided to walk by my chair. We were sitting in the dining tent, eating our meal when the little jerks walked by and one of them gave the bottom of my wheelchair a sharp kick. Had I not had a mouthful of food, I’d have given the little shits an earful!
Honestly, how would you feel if I kicked you? They were stupid too, because as they walked by one kid said “kick the wheelchair” and then they began laughing like little gremlins. As if I hadn’t realized they gave my $20,000 wheelchair a massively hard kick. I’d have liked to present their mom with that bill had they messed up my battery, which is located right near where they kicked.
Seriously though, kicking wheelchairs is just rude and downright disrespectful. I’d punish my son with one heck of a grounding and some disability sensitivity training if I knew he was responsible for kicking someone’s wheelchair or other medical equipment.
Don’t Walk in Front of Me like I’m not There – For your sake, watch where you’re walking. I only yield for small children. They know not what they do and will walk in front of anyone, whether they are in a wheelchair or not. I will hit you if you are rude enough to step in front of my wheelchair, and when you bitch about me hitting you, I’ll explain how you don’t walk in front of people in wheelchairs, as if they don’t exist. By then, you’re the one who is looking pretty dumb and I’ve seen more embarrassed folks huff off then push the issue, all because they were in such a hurry they had to be rude.
Don’t Stare if you’re an Adult – I’m not an alien. I’m a human being. Think about how you’d feel if people stared at you. Nobody likes to be stared at, so if you have a question, don’t be a wuss. Just ask it! I give people credit for asking why I’m in a chair and how long I’ve been in it. At least they’re trying to learn how to be more understanding and about someone in a different life situation than them. If you can’t ask then don’t look at me at all, because if I see you staring, I’m liable to come up to you and ask about your staring problem! That’s more embarrassing then having to ask any question you have, for sure.
Don’t Tell Me you’re Praying for Me – Why would you go up to a stranger and say that? Just because I’m in a wheelchair doesn’t mean I need or want your prayers. I may not even be the same religion as you. If I want prayers, I’ll send out a Myspace memo to all my friends. Otherwise, I just want to enjoy my time wherever I am (in this case, the festival).
Don’t Say Stupid Things – I’ve heard them all like “bless your little heart” or “wow, look at how well he gets around”. Well, of course I get around. I have a wheelchair. I’m not two, so don’t treat me like I’m a baby. I don’t need your little looks of pity, stupid consoling responses, or obviously prejudicial, yet you think it is okay to say them, remarks.
Do Introduce Yourself – I like to meet new people. Feel free to say hi, tell me your name and ask mine. I always like meeting new people and I’m far more approachable when I’m introduced to someone, as opposed to meeting them when they kick my wheelchair or are busy staring at me.
I’m in a wheelchair, but I’m just like everyone else. I went to the festival to watch my son ride the rides I enjoyed when I was his age. I went to walk (wheel) around with my girlfriend, and get away from work for a short time. I went to enjoy yummy, festival food and fresh squeezed lemonade. I didn’t go to have you stare, say stupid things, kick me or use me as your leaning post. So, just don’t do it!