One of the things I’ve noticed since using a wheelchair is that folks who are recovering from surgeries and injuries and are temporarily using assistive equipment often approach me. And since I’ve been in a wheelchair quite a while now, I’ve noticed there’s a pattern in what they say. Often it’s something like
“This is a lot harder to do than I thought!” or
“Things really aren’t as accessible as I thought”
“I can’t wait for this to be over. I don’t know how you do it”
It’s hard to know how to react to some of these comments. Do I say something along the lines of “You get used to it?” which, by the way, is a large part of why these folks are having a hard time with it. It takes time to learn how to use any kind of mobility device. When I went from a manual wheelchair to a power wheelchair, it took me time to learn how to move it around, what it would do and/or not do. I expected that, however, because I’ve used a myriad of kinds of equipment.
Or should I be more direct and say “It’s not a big deal to me”? I think that’s also part of it. The novelty of entering the world as a temporarily disabled person can often make these folks focus entirely on that aspect of their life, which isn’t true for those of us who are permanently disabled – at least , I don’t think, most of us. I don’t give much thought to getting into my wheelchair when I get out of bed. I don’t think that walking is an option, which is a lot different than where they are coming from.
It’s always a good thing when experiences raise peoples’ awareness of access issues IMHO. So when someone says something along those lines, I’m happy to agree that we need to keep working toward more access along with acknowledging the progress we’ve already made.
Sometimes I’ve found myself just smiling and saying “Hope you feel better”. Because I’m not sure there’s any way to explain to people that their experience is a very different one, although it does converge with mine in many ways. I think of them like an exchange student who is temporarily visiting. They enter the disabled experience and then exit it at some point, having become more familiar with issues, but knowing they are going home. And while they are there, the actual experience of being in a foreign country looms largest – at least until it becomes more familiar.
At my church a woman who was on crutches for six weeks spoke to me every week during that experience. When she got off the crutches, that stopped. I said hi a few times and she looked the other way. I found that to be very sad. But it’s not the first time it’s happened. For her, the trip was over.
On the other hand, I’ve met many more people who have used their experiences to raise their awareness and emerge from it with a permanent shift of consciousness even when their temporary disability ends. Often these are people who ask if I need help or notice when there isn’t access. They share their experience and say “I know a bit about this because I was on crutches…I was in a wheelchair..for six months….for three weeks…”
There is a bond there. Some may argue that it’s a different bond, but I’m not sure that’s a useful debate. Because in the dialogue toward inclusion, I’m all for letting everyone on the bus for the trip.
Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan