When I meet new people many of them feel very awkward about my wheelchair; they are so afraid to mention or even look at it that it quickly becomes the elephant in the room. It falls to me to break the ice, which I have several ways of doing. Sometimes I’ll use a quick one-liner to put people at ease, but a surprisingly effective technique is to positively draw attention to the wheelchair.
My first wheelchair had a dull grey metal frame, around a dull black seat, and a dull cream cushion. I quickly grew tired of people being so afraid of an awkward social situation that they would go to great lengths to avoid me, although it could always have been my personality of course, so I bought some high-visibility reflective stickers of yellow smiley faces and placed three down each side panel of the wheelchair. Where-ever I went they would make people smile, and in knowing that I was not afraid to play the fool, most developed a more welcoming attitude towards me. Children adored them and would reach out to touch them, before being whisked away by mortified parents.
When I upgraded to my second wheelchair, I purchased one with a red, sparkly frame, which in itself did a lot to dispel the awkwardness when meeting new people. I have applied the same principle to my newest wheelchair, which also has a bright red frame, and is a talking point for many.
Christmas is another fantastic opportunity to assure people that I am an ordinary human being with a sense of humour. Every year I buy some cheap tinsel which I wrap around the frame, and every year I receive lots of positive feedback. Complete strangers even call out complements across the street. However, this pales into comparison with what my school peer and Paralympian, Coral Batey, once did with her wheelchair. She somehow managed to wrap battery powered fairy lights around her wheels, and it was quite a sight to watch her glide down the corridor with twinkling lights beneath her; it certainly had the desired effect. The BBC have even reported on a group of wheelchair users who modified their wheelchairs for Halloween, including one child who wanted his wheelchair to become a Tie Fighter for the day: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/disability-37774000.
It may seem a simple and even immature thing to do, but adding something special to a wheelchair raises people’s interest and they see you in a positive light. Changing society’s stereotypes and taboos does not happen without effort on behalf of the minority, taking time and persistence instead. That is, of course, the very purpose of this blog because people’s opinions and actions towards disability will not change if others continue to live with misconceptions influencing their actions. Therefore a little silliness could be the driving factor behind immense social change.