I’ll never forget the one time I was outside a Target on my cell phone. I wasn’t doing anything except talking and sitting there, but apparently I was doing a lot more. In the middle of my conversation I was interrupted by a stranger asking if I needed help, and then I realized what was happening. My wheelchair was speaking much louder than I was, and the message it was sending out – this girl needs help. The wheelchair unfortunately has become a universal symbol for “HOLY cow this person may need my assistance” and I completely understand this. Traversing the world sitting down is difficult. When you see someone in a wheelchair, you can’t help but have this gut reaction. Before my accident I felt this every time I saw someone in a wheelchair too.
But now as a 20+ year wheelchair user, I have to disagree with this sentiment. It is completely off-base. A wheelchair is not a symbol of helplessness. It is one of the best tools known to man for helping people with chronic injuries get around this crazy world even if they can’t walk. I love my wheelchair. It is without question an enabler and has absolutely nothing to do with helplessness.
What really struck me when that stranger approached me was my gut reaction. I was taken aback. The way she approached me was alarming and it scared me. I had no idea my mere presence could excite someone into such a 911-frenzy out of the blue. I’m sure comedians like Tom Green would’ve found this hysterical, but when it’s directly happening to you, you can’t help but get pissed. A little raw honesty, but I think it’s needed. You’re taught in SCI rehab to go out into the world and be bold, be brave and whatever you do, don’t let your wheelchair hold you back. But it’s really difficult to make this happen when you have the entire world being alarmed by your simple presence. Hey, it’s a wheelchair not a ticking time bomb. I can ask for help if I need it, world. Believe me.
There are, however, those in wheelchairs who are not very verbal and may appreciate a stranger asking them for help, but for the 80% of wheelchair-users you see in public, they can ask if they need it. So as a rule of thumb, wait to approach and for the love of God, don’t come up to us from behind in a tizzy simply because you spotted me and automatically think I must need some kind of help. I don’t want to die from an early heart attack. Wheelchairs are awesome people. So when you see one, appreciate what it’s doing for the person in it and please, don’t go into “OMG” wheelchair-mode. They are independent-makers of the purest kind.
Have you suddenly been approached by a stranger assuming you needed help? How did you respond?