A Way With Words.

A laptop showing a blank screen, notepads, and coffee mug.

One of the funniest things about being a wheelchair user is just how many phrases in the English language contain typically ablest sentiments, that when said to someone using a wheelchair could be construed as offensive, even though in the majority of cases no offence was intended.

It was mid-summer in 2015 when I bumped into my neighbour as we passed the shop he had just visited. Being British, we stopped to make awkward conversation limited to topics such as the surprisingly nice weather and how clean his car was. At this point he laughed and said that the car was his pride and joy, and he used it everywhere outside of work. I replied, “It’s ok, I don’t walk anywhere either,” which served to break the ice and remove the last of the awkwardness between us.

In September 2016, I visited PC World to help Jarred choose a suitable laptop for his studies. After selecting the perfect machine we went to a desk where we could discuss student package deals including word processing and anti-virus software. At the desk we were told to “take a seat”, and I simply couldn’t resist piping up with “No need, I already have one.” The poor man looked mortified until Jarred assured him that I was evil and took great pleasure in convincing people that they had upset me, which I was in no position to deny.

On one occasion shortly before Christmas I was due to give a presentation about a group project I had been involved with. The room in which the presentation was taking place was small, and a little difficult to access from the wheelchair being an old building, so I decided to use walking sticks to cover the short distance from the reception to the presentation as I was feeling relatively well. My lecturers were aware that it wasn’t common for me to do so, and couldn’t hide their surprise when I walked in alongside my peers. “Christmas miracle,” I said in response to their bemused looks, which consequently lightened the atmosphere allowing the presentation to run smoothly.

Probably my favourite of all such situations occurred during the pantomime in the Student’s Union, which was like a normal pantomime but with crude language and more explicit sexual references. It was based on Aladdin, and during Jafar’s first scene he recited his evil plan in an animated fashion. At the end of this speech, Jafar declared loudly “Not even you will stand in my way”, and pointed directly at me. In response, I pointed downwards and simply said “Wheelchair”. A flicker of a smile flashed across Jafar’s face, but with all due credit to the actor this was his only break of character while the audience roared with laughter at his predicament.

Some people find my attempts to laugh at my situation odd, and suggest that to some it may even be offensive. However, I am always careful to make myself the subject of these jokes to avoid causing offense to others. What I do find is that people often don’t know what to say to someone with an obvious disability, so I try to make light of the issue to make others feel more comfortable. Once they know that I am a normal person who is capable of laughing at myself they relax and treat me like a normal person without even realising it. I get a refreshing glimpse of normality, and others lose their fear of talking to disabled people. I fail to see why this is in any way odd or offensive, and if anything I recommend it to other disabled people as a way of integrating with society. In other words, taking a stand for disability doesn’t have to be aggressive…

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