Liberty Denied.

When disabled people ask you not to use the phrase “wheelchair-bound”, it’s not political correctness gone mad; it’s political correctness asking you not to contribute to the harmful stereotypes that still plague disabled people’s lives despite proving them wrong time & time again.

The term bound has a lot of implications. It implies that no wheelchair-user, the phrase we would like you to use please, can stand or walk at all. This then contributes to the accusations of faking a disability for benefits, because as we all know that is by far the most effective way of paying the bills. It also contributes to the notion that sudden, inexplicable miracles are a lot more common than you would reasonably believe.

Bound is a word that also implies a lack of freedom, that someone is imprisoned by a wheelchair, which is not true. This in turn causes a lot of physical & mental harm to individuals who become disabled.

When it was recommended that I would need a wheelchair eight years ago, I was adamant that I would only use it for very long trips. I stubbornly refused to use it at after school events & on shopping trips, for fear that I would become disabled. The truth was that I was already disabled. A wheelchair doesn’t disable you; dysfunctional body parts do, & you just might end up using a wheelchair should such a malfunction occur.

My stubbornness left me in horrendous pain & with unbearable fatigue. Then, thanks to Graded Exercise Therapy, my health plummeted & I was left with no choice but to use the wheelchair every time I left the house.

As I expected my life was transformed, but to my surprise it was changed for the better. Suddenly I had my life back. I had an education & friends & as the years passed, I would make my way to university, employment, & marriage. None of it would have been possible without my wheelchair.

There is a stigma that becoming more dependent on mobility aids is “giving in” to disability. This is not true, unless of course you count “giving in” as learning to face an inherently ableist society where your basic human rights are constantly overlooked or denied completely. This stigma makes people believe that mobility aids are a worst-case scenario, that using them is to show weakness, & that their lives will become worse if they use them.

Many of us seem to have that awkward relative who, despite being increasingly aware of their age (to put it politely), refuses to accept help or mobility aids. How many bones have been broken because of this? How many people have been trapped in their own homes because of this? How many people lose their friends because of this? The fact of the matter is that not using a mobility aid is far more likely to imprison & harm someone than using one is.

When writing this I must admit I did have one particular person in mind, although from discussions on social media I know that this is a very common problem. I don’t know if that person will read this, & if they do I may well end up in trouble for suggesting such heinous things, as it is a difficult topic to discuss. By using more inclusive terminology that better reflects the experience of using a wheelchair or other mobility aid, perhaps we can learn to have this difficult discussion, & improve the lives of millions of people across the globe.

Taking a Stand.

If you use Twitter and you haven’t seen the #AmbulatoryWheelchairUsersExist campaign then I’m offended, because that means you aren’t following me.

In all seriousness, that little phrase is being used across social media to raise awareness of wheelchair users who can sometimes stand and walk, usually with walking aids. I myself have a rollator, which is basically a cross-over between a Zimmer frame and one of those shopping baskets on wheels that are a pre-requisite condition of being a pensioner, with a seat to perch on when needed. This means that on the occasions where I am only going around the corner to post a letter or buy a pint of milk, I’m not dependent on my wheelchair.

There is an attitude that ambulatory wheelchair users are lazy attention-seekers, faking the severity of their illness to obtain additional financial support. The reality of the matter is that, as with any illness, some days are going to be better than others.

The first time I used my rollator was on a wild trip to the supermarket to pick up a few basic sundries. It was undeniably strange to feel the pavement beneath my feet; I was acutely aware of the bumps in the pavement, and the hotter temperature of the concrete exposed to the sunlight. I managed to maintain a slow, steady pace down the hill and round the shop, revelling in the luxury of being able to see what items were on the top shelves, and not have to become a contortionist to reach the items I wanted. I could even reach to the back of the refrigerator to select the freshest milk.

I went to the self-checkout, paid, and placed the packed shopping bag on the seat of my frame. Halfway up the hill a strong gust of wind sent my shopping sprawling across the street, and as I bent down to collect everything as quickly as I could, I was tutted at for being in the path of passers-by and absolutely no one offered to help. It was strangely reassuring to know that I was as invisible on the frame as I was in the wheelchair.

Since then I have used the frame on an almost daily basis, and on the whole I have enjoyed the freedom it has given me as single steps and curb drops are now climbable, if a little difficult. The only real difficulty I have faced is that, just like in the wheelchair, I am expected to go around other people, prams, groups stopped on the street, and even badly parked cars. In the wheelchair this is incredibly annoying, can greatly slow my progress, and often leaves me vulnerable to verbal abuse. On the rollator there are an extra two steps needed to move out of the way of someone who absolutely needed to respond to a message that instant, the rest of society be damned. Add up the number of times this can happen in one small street and I can end up walking an extra 10 – 20 steps. This sounds insignificant but with each extra step my muscles hurt more, my dizziness increases, and my body temperature rises at an alarmingly uncontrolled rate. This is one of the main reasons why I simply cannot use the rollator over long periods or distances without risking a serious relapse.

I might leave the flat one day in the wheelchair and then be using the rollator the next. This does not make me a fake, nor does it make me heroic for putting up with the pain. I’m just trying to live a little, and I am far from the only person doing so. Ambulatory wheelchair users do, in fact, exist, and we are going places (albeit very slowly).