This week the Sabbatical Officers at the Guild have been spending a day in wheelchairs in order to try and understand issues about accessibility for wheelchair users better, and to take them more seriously. I did my day in a wheelchair on Tuesday and thought it might be worth writing something short about it.
I want to stress that this post is more of an attempt to clarify my own thoughts and understand issues better, rather than a statement of my own fixed opinion. I would really encourage people to tell me if I am wrong or displaying privilege as I genuinely want to learn how not to do so.
The day did help me to understand certain things better, for example I had a couple of instances of things left in corridors that were impossible to get round, and I think I will look for and take action on these kinds of situations in future. It also alerted me to the difficulties of getting over certain parts of the university, for example how much energy it takes to get over the bumpy cobbled section near the maths building. However I think it would be a real mistake to start to talk about the experience as if I know what it is like to be in a wheelchair.
Spending one day in the chair feels as if it’s a sort of challenge, something to be endured rather than just the way that life is. I have little more idea now as before the day started of what it would really be like because the mental experience is completely different.
One of most interesting things about the day was the way that people looked at me, when I was wheeling myself around campus. There was a mixture of staring, averting the eye’s, and looks of pity that I found extremely disconcerting. What started at the beginning of the day as explaining to people I knew that I had not had an accident, became me feeling the need to tell people who served me in the shop or asked me if I needed help that I wasn’t really disabled. On reflection I think this reaction is quite problematic.
I am coming to the conclusion that my desire for people to not see me as disabled displays some very dodgy assumptions about, and reactions to, disabled people by myself; as well as other people in the way that they react to someone in a wheelchair. I think what this outlines is the need for disabled liberation as well as increasing physical accessibility. We need to deal with the way that non disabled people think about and act around disabled people as well as eradicating physical barriers in their way.
It also shows me that I need to do more reading and thinking around disability and liberation, and that there should be more education about this. Any recommendations for reading would be appreciated.
Update: after advice I have changed the phrase able bodied to non disabled in the second to last paragraph.