Last night I had a lovely night out at a pub in Brixton celebrating Bunny’s birthday. Just after 11pm the floor was cleared to make room for dancing.
I did a fair bit of furniture moving of my own, in order to create my ideal dancing environment. I finished up with a sofa all to myself that I could kneel and move freely on. While I was dancing out of my chair, various friends sat in it from time to time, a fair exchange given that I was using a lot of the available seating as my personal dance floor.
Shortly before leaving I went outside to book a cab. On my way back in I felt someone manoeuvring my chair. I looked behind me to find a man pushing me. I didn’t need his help and hadn’t asked for it. Then, he leaned forward and whispered in an accusatory tone, “I saw you standing up earlier.” I felt an immediate rush of rage.
I told him that he definitely didn’t see me standing, but he might have seen me on the sofa, or one of my friends sitting in my wheelchair. He mumbled an acknowledgement of this and then drifted back into the busy pub leaving me raging inside.
If you’re a non-wheelchair user you might be wondering why this made me so angry. Let me unpick the many assumptions that are lumped into this single phrase.
“I saw you standing up earlier” = ‘Genuine’ wheelchair users can’t use their legs at all
“I saw you standing up earlier” = Being in a wheelchair is permanent, unchanging state
“I saw you standing up earlier” = Wheelchair users are bound to their chairs
“I saw you standing up earlier” = You’re dishonest, a fake
Here’s the reality behind those assumptions.
Lots of wheelchair users can stand or walk. People use wheelchairs for all sorts of reasons. For some it’s paralysis, for others it can be fatigue, muscle weakness, wobbliness, pain, breathing difficulties or many other reasons. Nobody has the right to know why someone uses a wheelchair, nor to make assumptions about someone’s health or mobility.
Many people who use wheelchairs will have fluctuating conditions, which mean they might need to use a chair on some days and not on others. Similarly, some people might use a chair in some circumstances but not in others – it could be that you have the stamina to walk to the front door to collect the post but not to go to the shops. Wheelchairs are tools for living and it’s natural that people use them in many different ways.
I’m definitely not bound to my chair. I love it and I use it to get around in the same way that many people love their cars and use them to get around. But they’re not ‘car-bound’. They’re allowed to park up and get out, and sometimes I choose to do the same.
As a society we have a very narrow understanding of disability. Many conditions, or impairments, will not be outwardly visible. We should not need ‘iconic symbols’ of disability, such as wheelchairs, to understand and appreciate that some people need to do things differently.
The Government’s own statistics show fraudulent claims for disability allowances to be about 0.5%. But studies have shown that the public perception of this fraud is 34 times higher, at a massive 23%. It feels as if we’re turning into a nation of Miss Marples permanently on the hunt for fraudsters. As a disabled person I find this suspicion upsetting and oppressive.
I didn’t stay angry for long – these were only six words in an otherwise lovely evening. But I felt compelled to write about them because statements like this are all too common, and stem from ignorance about disability. Careless comments can damage confidence so it’s important to challenge assumptions and change attitudes.
I heard a great bit of advice for curious strangers everywhere the other day. A parent of a disabled child said she’d like people to pause and think for a moment about how they’d feel if they were being asked the question.
This is a solid starting point: Don’t assume – think and listen.
“Happy recycled Christmas joy.”