The Wheelchair Choice
I'm a part-time wheelchair user. I make a conscious choice over whether to use my wheelchair, not only every day but every time I leave the house (I have other 'mobility-friendly habits' for indoors, mostly because my flat is the size of a large cupboard). This choice tends to be based around whether my mobility and independence would be best served by a) using my old, second-hand and rapidly falling apart, but otherwise very useful powerchair, b) being pushed around in a massive but more portable NHS-standard manual by my Girl, or c) walking the very variable distances that are still possible if I have a stick for balance and support.
There are, of course, serious barriers and problems that come with choices a) and b), as you'd expect. Not least of these is the battle I'm waging with my local council over a small access adaptation to my home that they're currently refusing to make (as anyone who reads my blog will know, as it's quite literally all I talk about these days. More on that here another time, I've no doubt). Transport, shopping, leisure activities etc are all a lot more difficult from a seated position, since the world is not designed for people who are effectively three feet tall and can't do steps. But the very fact that I even have the chance to worry about lack of access to such things, instead of having to sit at home waiting for other people to bring me news of the outside world, is surely a positive thing.
Which is why I find people's attitudes extremely interesting, when it comes to The Wheelchair Choice. I'm not talking about the hordes of oblivious strangers who regularly step out in front of me because they're incapable of looking down, or who are depressingly patronising about offering me 'a push' (in my powered wheelchair) when I'm just waiting for the lights to change at pedestrian crossings. No, I mean people who know me. You'd expect my friends and family to be pleased that I can once again, after nearly a year of very serious illness, complain about how very bored I am by my intense lack of social life, instead of by being unable to leave the house. And of course, most of my best friends have been fine about it, in the same way as they were nonplussed when I started going out with a girl, or when they first found out that I like to go to church every Sunday (OK, so they're still not quite sure what that one's about). An awful lot of people have surprised me, though. Even people who I thought knew me really well have questioned how much I really 'need' the chair (I want to answer "And how much do you really *need* a flushing toilet?" but I'm just not nasty enough), or whether it wouldn't be better for me to try and 'keep going' with my stick for as long as possible (because it's just so much fun to collapse in pain and be entirely immobile for the next three days, all because you wanted to see how far you could really walk that morning). My neighbours have been confused by the fact that I can do some weeding in my garden - from a comfortably seated position - but still need to 'inconvenience' them by my use of a wheelchair (yes, I'm harping on about that adaptation again, I apologise). Even some close friends have worried about appearances, asking me not to stand up at all in the pub, in case other people accuse me of not needing the wheelchair (as if it's their problem what people think about me). Family have admitted their 'confusion' over the chair (what's confusing? It's a seat with wheels attached) and a few people have quite clearly stated - if only behind my back - that I use it more than I should for 'attention'. I'd like them to try out some of this attention for a few days and then tell me whether they like it. Being daily offered that push at the lights is not a particularly fun experience, people.
I think the problem here is society's perception of what a wheelchair signifies. We use phrases like 'wheelchair-bound' and 'confined to a wheelchair' that suggest that, rather than being something enabling and life-enhancing, it's a wholly negative experience. I was at a comedy club the other night (without my wheelchair, since it was, of course, up a large flight of stairs), where an otherwise very funny comic made a passing reference to a wheelchair that betrayed an attitude of 'your life is over' towards people with mobility impairments. While most medical professionals are now becoming increasingly supportive of my need for ways to increase my choices in getting around, I still find some of them very resistant to the idea. Some months ago, just as I was gaining enough independence to start leaving the house alone, my physiotherapist signed me off with the words "You must keep working harder, Naomi, because this is not normal. You may think it is, but it's not." What an encouraging thing to say to someone who's just discovering how to live a relatively active life again. If that's how medical people think, no wonder society thinks wheelchair users should be shoved out of sight where they can't offend anyone with their irritating negative choices.
I'm being interviewed today for a study into how people cope with changes in health and impairment, by the social policy research unit of a university. They'll be following me and my choices for about three years. I'm sitting here with my breakfast and a list of areas of life - education, employment, housing and so on. I am supposed to discuss ways in which I have been able to exercise choice in these areas since I developed a physical impairment. I'm struck not only by how I have had almost no choices in any of these areas since I became unwell, but also by how much I further reduce my choices by that daily, 'ultimate' choice I make - to use a wheelchair. And yet I continue to use it. Why? Because it's also the most empowering choice I've made since I became ill. It's allowed me indepedence, mobility, freedom, the opportunity to look for work again, and the chance to get some control back over my life. Am I pissed off by the limitations it places on my access, and by people's attitudes to it - to me when I'm using it - to the ways in which I choose to use it? Of course. It's more than worth it.
Which is why my favourite comment about wheelchairs and attitudes will always be that of my wonderful flatmate, upon hearing about my neighbour's negative comment regarding my Wheelchair Choice when I can still weed the garden. "It shouldn't even matter whether you choose to use the wheelchair because you just enjoy it more than walking. It's your choice." Well done on the Social Model thinking, Flatmate. If it enables me, I will wheel.
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