Guest blogger Alex Vesey is a volunteer with UCP’s national office and a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence college. This is her first spring in Washington, DC and she finds the cherry blossoms incredible.
I have one really good magic trick. I step out of my chair and people’s jaws drop.
“You can walk?” Yeah, I can. A lot of wheelchair users can, to some degree. People are still shocked to see us get up and go, though, and sometimes even hostile if they think we’re “faking it.” Walking is presumed to be better than rolling. Look at the ways we describe wheelchair users as “wheelchair bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.” If you subscribe to that narrative, of course you think wheelchairs are scary and limiting.
Every person with a disability is different, and there are a lot of different reasons why walking can be impractical, painful, exhausting, or dangerous. I can’t speak for every wheelchair user, but for me, life with a wheelchair is life without limits.
Until I was eighteen, I didn’t use any mobility aids but that’s not the same as being able to walk independently. I could walk short distances, keeping my eye out for somewhere to sit and rest. Rain, snow, uneven ground, and hills made me inch along, afraid of falling. Ice and stairs were serious barriers. I couldn’t carry very much with me. Even a few textbooks or one bag of groceries was enough to rock my balance and strain my muscles. I lived with chronic pain in my legs, hips, and back. I was always tired. When I went out with my parents or friends, I held onto someone’s arm. Walking unaided meant limitations, not independence.
Things improved when I went to college and bought several canes, each in a different color or pattern, so I could match them to my outfits. Using a cane meant I could keep up with the challenges of college life. I could traverse campus, go up and down steps more easily, and didn’t need to lean on anyone. I was more surefooted in bad weather, and more confident. I still struggled with pain and fatigue, sometimes severe enough that I missed classes, and I still couldn’t carry groceries, which meant that even though I had a kitchen, I was mostly stuck with dining hall food and Pop-Tarts. Still, a cane gave me more freedom to move than I’d had before.
My senior year, I spent a weekend in DC with my girlfriend and she rented a powerchair for me to use when we went out and did touristy things. I was very nervous, mostly about other people’s perceptions of me. I didn’t want to step out of the chair in public because I thought people would get upset with me for being a faker. I was worried it was morally wrong, somehow, to use a wheelchair if you could at all possibly make do without it. But I wanted to tour the museums and I knew if I tried to do it on foot, even with my cane, I would wipe myself out and spend half of my vacation in bed.
So I gave the wheelchair a shot. It was amazing. We went to two museums that weekend and I got to spend as much time roaming around as I wanted, without having to sit and rest or go home early. I had more energy. I was in so much less pain that I didn’t even realize what was going on at first. It felt like I was floating and then I realized that’s just what the absence of pain feels like when you’ve gotten so used to it it’s become background noise.
I had a great weekend and then I went back to college and back to using my cane and scanning for benches and chairs. The pain in my legs returned. Now I had tasted real independence, real mobility, and I wanted it back.
I named my wheelchair JJ after one of the FBI agents on my favorite show, Criminal Minds. I’ve had her for about a year and we make a great team. I’ve experienced massive gains in independence and well-being. I can commute to and from work. I can run errands and buy groceries. I carry my groceries home on the back of my chair and now I’m learning to cook. When I go out with my friends, I don’t have to worry about not being able to keep up. Sure, some places aren’t accessible, but for me the benefits totally outweigh the inconveniences.
Sometimes, old friends, startled by the new chair, greet the news with sympathy and pity. “Oh, it’s a shame you have to use that thing,” they say. I laugh at them. I love my chair and they’re the ones who are limited, confined and bound by their own ideas about what life as a wheelchair user is like.
The next time you see someone step out of a wheelchair, don’t gawk at them. The next time you meet someone who uses a wheelchair one day and walks another day, don’t ask them prying questions. Don’t make wheelchair users justify themselves and don’t assume that just because someone is using a wheelchair that you know all about their physical capabilities and limitations. Everyone finds their own way to a life without limits, and for some of us that means a wheelchair.