“What’s wrong with you?” “How did this happen?”
People in wheelchairs encounter those questions regularly – and want people to know they are not OK to ask.
“I hate when people ask me ‘What happened?'” says Lucy Trieshmann, 26. “That question reduces and objectifies me, as if the only thing interesting about me is why I use a wheelchair.”
More than 61 million adults in the US have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 13.7% have a mobility condition that makes walking or taking the stairs difficult.
But just because you can see someone’s disability doesn’t give you the right to ask about it. Here’s a look at what wheelchair users wish you knew:
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Paul Amadeus Lane
Location: Advance, Calif.
Occupation: Broadcast media professional, accessibility consultant
What do you wish people knew about being in a wheelchair?
- “Just because we are in wheelchairs doesn’t mean that we’re not happy. Even though we deal with challenging circumstances, we live a very happy and fulfilling life.”
- “Some people think that everybody in the wheelchair can walk and just don’t want to walk. Many of us have lost the ability to walk due to an injury or an illness.”
- “We enjoy being included in the conversation. I know for myself personally when I’m with my wife, everyone talks to her and not me. It’s as though I don’t exist and that if they look at me long enough they feel they may become disabled by osmosis.”
What is the biggest misconception people have about you? “That I am not able to perform certain tasks without even giving me the opportunity to do so. Also, another misconception is that because a person is in the wheelchair they shouldn’t be in relationships and get married. They feel because of my disability that I’m not able to live a fun, productive life.”
What brings you the most joy? “Helping others whether if they are wheelchair users or not. All of us have everyday struggles. When I’m able to help uplift and inspire individuals from all walks of life and sharing with them things that can help them overcome challenges and deal with issues really brings me the most joy.”
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Occupation: Law student
What do you wish people knew about being in a wheelchair? “I wish people knew that ambulatory wheelchair users exist. Quite a lot of people who use wheelchairs can and do walk, to varying degrees. That doesn’t detract from the legitimacy of their identity as a disabled person. I also wish nondisabled people didn “t assume I’m unhappy simply because I use a wheelchair. My wheelchair is my freedom and my lifeline – why would I be unhappy about the device that makes my life as I know it possible?”
Why saying “disabled” isn’t bad: “If using it makes someone feel uncomfortable, that means they have work to do on deconstructing their internalized ableism. I am proud to be disabled; wish others would use the word without shame.”
What brings you joy? “Seeing disabled people thrive and live their wildest dreams brings me immeasurable joy.”
Occupation: Consultant and manager
What people assume: “As a wheelchair user, people assume I’m completely incapable. They talk to the people around me and not me. People don’t want to look at me because some people are disgusted with wheelchair users, and others are embarrassed to look at us.”
What do you wish people knew? “I wish they would see that I’m a human being and that I have wants and needs and desires and dreams that I can fulfill just like everyone else. I wish that they would see that my wheelchair is not scary. That it gave me freedom and that it’s nothing that they should fear themselves.”
Location: Victoria, British Columbia
What you wish people knew: “The No. 1 thing I wish people knew about wheelchair users is that the majority of us are not paralyzed and are actually capable of some level of walking. … The fact is I can walk but walking poses a risk to me due to my medical conditions, not to mention a great deal of pain and fatigue.
Stop saying “confined to a wheelchair.” “Wheelchairs are very much the opposite for disabled people and give us a large amount of freedom and independence we may otherwise be unable to access.”
Why a wheelchair shouldn’t affect someone’s opinion: “I live a beautiful life. I don’t want my wheelchair to factor into a person’s opinion of me.”
What questions should people stop asking? “I think the one I hate the most is ‘What’s wrong with you?’ since it automatically presupposes something is wrong with me. Nothing is ‘wrong’ with me. I am disabled. This isn’t a right or wrong thing; it’s a neutral thing; it’s a fact of life. I have also gotten ‘What happened to you?’ which again makes assumptions, with many people assuming wheelchairs must be the result of car accidents or other ‘happenings.'”
What brings you joy? “Being out in nature brings me the most joy! Exploring tidal pools, watching bumblebees pollinate flowers, marveling at the perfection of a spider web – these activities bring me incredible joy, and truly, it’s often my wheelchair that enables me to access them! “
Location: Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Occupation: Senior adviser for AppleCare
What you wish people knew: “A wheelchair is only a piece of our identity; granted, being in a wheelchair is significant, as it impacts daily life, but in every wheelchair seat there is a person who has developed beyond their impairment. ‘Inspiration porn’ is not cute; I can’t tell you the number of times people have told me I’m an inspiration … for the dumbest things.”
A common misconception about sex: “Society has a habit of hypersexualizing a very specific archetype, wheelchair users not among them. But hi, I like sex just as much as the next person.”
Is there a question that annoys you the most? “Not really. I’ve learned that many people have never really had a direct experience or extended interaction with someone in a wheelchair. So they genuinely have no idea, because it is all new to them. And, even if they know someone else in a wheelchair, there’s such a spectrum – it doesn’t affect any two people in the same way.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism