‘Wheelchair Day’

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.

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2 Responses to ‘Wheelchair Day’

  1. Calum MacFadyen says:

    “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;”

    I don’t think that those assumptions are the slightest bit dodgy. In fact, I think you were experiencing the same feelings that a lot of disabled people feel. We do not want to be seen as being disabled, we often just want to be seen as people. There are a huge amount of things that disabled people can do and it does get on the nerves a bit when able bodied people, while trying to be nice and helpful, make more of an issue than there really is over certain things. A lot of disabled people are quite confident and happy to ask others from help when it is needed but that comes from coming to terms with a disability which can take quite a long time and some never can.

    “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.”
    In saying that, you also experienced the thoughtless side of many people, ie, leaving things in corridors that block wheelchair access. Most able bodied people, and even some disabled people often forget or don’t think about such simple things because it is not part of their life experience. Even when people know about such things they can forget about them if they are under pressure or in a hurry but their is no malice in it or deliberate attempt to be anti-disabled by doing that. The biggest difficulty in trying to do something about this is that the obstacles you mention are often temporary and by the time they are reported, passed on and then acted upon they are already gone but if it is more permanent then changing these would be a good thing.

    Also there is one assumption that you and many other people do seem to make is that disability is a thing that is visual. People react to seeing wheelchairs, white sticks, casts for broken bones etc because they can see them. I have a chronic condition that fluctuates between the extremes of being able to play sports at an international level sometimes and being completely unable to walk on others. I guess I get to see both sides of the argument which is slightly unusual but not as unusual as many people might think. There is also the issue around pain for many unseen disabilities that impact on mental health and by that I don’t mean depression or things like that, I mean ability to concentrate through lectures, frustration about not being able to do things on days when you are most affected but can do normally and tiredness which pain can increase. These are disabilities that can not be experienced by others and therefore are most misunderstood.

    If you are genuinely interested in understanding disability then reading about it is not the way forward. Many academics have great medical knowledge about certain conditions but have no idea about how it affects day to day life. Even people at the sharp end, OT’s PT’s etc don’t always understand the people they work with. The best thing to do would be to get in touch with disability organisations that operate support networks for disabled people. Speak directly to the people who live with disabilities on a daily basis. My own experiece is with Arthritis Care and Young Arthritis Care and I think that they would be more than happy to talk to you.

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