Letting the Wheelchair Out

At the weekend I had the pleasure of hanging out with Fran. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to catch up properly because we’ve both been very busy. But on Saturday and Sunday we spent a load of time together doing some of our favourite things – eating, drinking and watching murder mysteries.

We even found time to go and browse in some local shops. When we were leaving one of them a family on their way in kindly held the door open for us. The mum told her daughter to ‘Get out of the way so the wheelchair can come out’.

It was great that they held the door open for us but as we went down the street Fran and I discussed how common it is for people to talk about ‘the wheelchair’ without any reference to the fact that there’s a person in it (and often someone pushing it too).

‘Let the wheelchair go in front.’
‘Let the wheelchair off the bus.’
‘Make space for the wheelchair.’

Fran and I giggled as we imagined my wheelchair bobbing about on its own without us.

But it doesn’t. The family had been very kind to open the door to let two people out of the shop, one of whom happened to use a wheelchair. And while some people might accuse me of being petty in noticing this detail, language plays an important role in how included or overlooked a person feels.

I know lots of people worry about saying the wrong thing when it comes to disability and this can make them tongue-tied. I don’t think fretting about language is helpful, but thinking about it, asking about it, and challenging it when necessary, definitely is.

It doesn’t worry me when people notice or make remarks about my chair, but I want them to realise it’s just a tool I use to get about, and not the shorthand for who I am.

One response to Letting the Wheelchair Out

  1. Mandyque says:

    I long to live in a world where people automatically think ‘person first, condition second’. It’s my personal mission to correct people when they use the wrong terminology to describe a person with disabilities. A couple of days ago, a friend commented that he’d seem a ‘mentally handicapped’ person enjoying a bus ride, on the whole it was a positive thing because it had made him smile that this guy was having fun, but I had to tell him that the guy was a person with a learning disability, that ‘mentally handicapped’ was an unacceptable term to use these days. It does feel petty at times, but we need to get these messages out there so people learn. If that guy now teaches his son ‘person first, condition second’, then it’s another tiny step towards people with disabilities being seen the way they deserve to be seen.

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