I’ve mentioned a few times that one’s disability is more than just the physical and/or mental limitations that it causes; it becomes part of who you are as a person. What I don’t feel I’ve explained adequately, though, is the degree to which a specific wheelchair becomes part of your body.
Imagine, for a moment, that you begin wearing a new pair of shoes and they haven’t been broken in yet. Feels weird, right? Getting a new wheelchair is much the same thing. Personally, I’ve only ever used manual chairs so I don’t know much about electric wheelchairs but, I imagine, the experience is largely similar.
Just like the new pair of shoes, you would ‘break in a new wheelchair’ by learning not only the chair’s idiosyncrasies, but also how your body plays into them. Ultimately, you are less of a ‘passenger’ in the chair and more of a partner with it.
It’s this partnership that a wheelchair-user develops with their chair that so often others don’t understand. Yes, chairs look similar and function in similar ways but be in one for any length of time and you’ll notice that it has its own, distinct personality. It is this unique ‘personality’ that makes moving into a chair that isn’t yours not only obvious but often unpleasant and potentially risky.
**To my more regular readers: I know a lot of the ideas today have been mentioned before but, I think these issues bear repeating. All the same, enjoy the reading.
For those of you familiar with South Africa, you’d know our track record with regards to disability isn’t the greatest. That said, there are organisations like the Chaeli Campaign or the Altitude Group that strive to improve the lives of disabled people.
Yesterday, I found myself being taken to a school in Cape Town through work so as to help out with an introduction to ‘Disability Sensitivity Training.’ I think it went well (even if I do say so myself). I was caught relatively off-guard when work asked me to do this so a lot of the stuff I said I had to do off-the-cuff. Looking back at the hastely-sketched argument I made, some of the points I made I feel are worth repeating: my ‘3 Buzzwords on Disability in Society’ if you will.
While the nature of a person’s disability is more-or-less unique, one should be aware of the basic characteristics (for want of a better word) of the common disabilities at the very least. That said, the way disability affects a person is largely subjective. Since a person’s life is highly subjective, we should not presume that all disabled people’s needs are identical. No two people are exactly alike, why should a disability remove our individuality?
With news of Jerry Lewis’s death flying around on Social Media, I became aware of his statement, “[If] you don’t want to be pitied as a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in ya home” through a tweet from Emma Ladau. Regardless of context, this kind of thinking makes me sadder than I can express.
I was born with a physical disability and have spent several years of my life in a wheelchair. Does that make me deserving of pity? Yes, disability has been a part of my life and will be forever. There’s nothing I can do to change that. While disability is part of my identity, it is not the only thing that makes me who I am.
When I think of what defines me, the first things that pop into my head is that I value friends and family above everything, I’m a Literature fan, and that I’m doing what I love. Only after all those things do ‘disabled’ or ‘wheelchair-user’ make an appearance. Yes, being a wheelchair-user comes with some challenges but life is full of them. Should one be pitied because they have challenges when, if we’re honest, everyone has challenges of their own? I think not.
Because of the fact that I was born with a disability, my disability and my wheelchair by extension, cannot be removed from my identity. That said, it is true that some people do see disability (particularly physical ones as they are often the most visible) as ‘pitiful.’ Does that mean that my identity, either in part or as a whole, is pitiful?