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Bound to annoy wheelchair users

by Julia Kite

23rd January 2005

Julia KiteI can have a big mouth. Or maybe I'm being a little hard on myself; if I have something to say that might not be the popular opinion, I like to go ahead and say it anyway.
I recently sent the following letter to the editor of my student newspaper here at Columbia University, New York City:

Dear Editor,

How did the term 'wheelchair-bound' make it through the editing process and appear not once, but twice, in your recent article about students' experiences with the disability services office?

I assume that other writers, as well as the editors, looked over this piece before it went to press, yet am I to believe that not one of them wondered if referring to two students as "wheelchair-bound" would be both inaccurate and potentially offensive?

Considering how many other terms could have been used - 'wheelchair user' comes to mind - I would like to hope that at least one person might have voiced a concern.

This newspaper would never dream of using the terms 'Negro' or 'Israelite'. Those words are just as outdated, and just as offensive, as 'wheelchair-bound'.

Julia Kite
December 1, 2004
A speech bubble filled with expletive symbols
If you're a devoted reader of Ouch, you may remember that 'wheelchair-bound' made it into the top ten of this site's Worst Word Vote, and was the seventh most unpopular amongst disabled respondents.

At first I was extremely proud to see my letter and my name printed in the paper. As usual, when something had upset me, I had spoken my mind, and people might just listen! But then I got feedback ...

"Over-reacting a bit, Julia?"

"Come on, you really don't expect everyone to be that politically correct, do you?"

"Going a bit overboard, don't you think?" was the general message I took away from people who mentioned my letter.

First of all, I was a bit cheesed off that I hadn't received any feedback for the editorials I had written about re-developing the World Trade Center site or about controversies within the school; and secondly, I began to worry. Was I going overboard? Was I just over-reacting after all? Was I making a big deal out of nothing? Had the publication of my letter labelled me as nothing but an ultra-politically correct complainer?

The activist is faced with a dilemma: shut up and miss the chance, or speak up and risk being ignored and scorned under the banner of 'ultra-PC liberal whiner'. Right now, 'liberal', 'activist' and even 'progressive' are harsh words in America, especially if you are in any position to influence government policy. I can see how people who know me and know that I do not use a wheelchair would easily jump to the conclusion that I was complaining for the sake of complaining. But I wrote that letter - even though I don't use a wheelchair - because I saw the use of the term 'wheelchair-bound' as indicative of a greater problem: a lack of awareness. And that is definitely my concern.

Just as I can support a woman's right to abortion even though I've never been pregnant, just as I've worked with groups campaigning for gay rights even though I'm straight, I can certainly comment about the incorrect portrayal of wheelchair usage that I saw in the student newspaper that day. Sure, writing a letter isn't exactly going to change the world, but you have to make your point when the opportunity arises. My big mouth has the right to say such things. If you don't like what I say, write your own letter!

Still, learning to pick one's battles wisely is one of the most pressing concerns for any activist. For days after my letter appeared, I debated in my head whether I should have written it in the first place. Being obsessive-compulsive, worries tend to hang around in my mind for a long time, but now I see that as a potential benefit. At least in this way, when I'm done thinking something over - even if it takes a few days - I will feel like I have left no stoned unturned. Whatever conclusion I come to will have been researched and deliberated for all it is worth!

It took me a while, but eventually I concluded that, no, there was nothing wrong with speaking my mind in that letter, even if the opinion was likely to be disregarded or even ridiculed by most readers. If I was going to speak up for what I believed, I couldn't pick and choose which subjects were worthy of more attention than others. In my mind that would be equivalent to saying that the oppression of one group was less worthy of attention than that of another group.

In the face of every type of injustice in today's society, it's easy to feel silenced. It's easy to believe that one person cannot do much - and in many cases it's probably true. Maybe my letters and editorials won't change anybody's mind, but I am not going to stop using what I've got.

Maybe I am an ultra-politically correct liberal activist whiner - but at least I have something to say.

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