When I’m out and about using my mobility aids (like my wheelchair, crutches, or cane) I get comments and questions like these a lot:
‘You are too young to use a wheelchair!’
‘What happened to you?!’
‘You are just using those to get attention!’
‘Can you work, can you do this or that….?’
‘You must be faking; nothing is wrong with you!’
I am a 26-year-old woman using mobility aids to get around. They help me with my chronic pain and dizziness spells, it keeps me from falling over and it helps me on days where my muscles are too weak to hold me up. People don’t see these hidden symptoms; they see a young woman using aids they think are only meant for some 65+. They lash out, get uncomfortable or talk over me. Not only is this very rude, but it’s also very dehumanizing. And this needs to change!
Let’s start from the beginning, okay?
A mobility aid is a device designed to assist with walking or otherwise improves mobility of people with mobility impairment. Just to name a few: powered and unpowered wheelchairs, mobility scooters, a white cane or guide dog for those who are visually impaired, crutches or walkers.
Mobility aids are used by young and old. They generally bring more independence, yet might be viewed as unfortunate and limiting. The way people look at me when in a wheelchair is so different from when I don’t use my aids, even though in both cases I am disabled. When in my wheelchair some people assume they have to talk slow and in simple sentences. Or they stare at me or whisper. When I am using my crutches, it raises questions to which the answers are very private. And me using a cane is seen as attention seeking.
Why does this view have to change?
It feels as though the world views disabilities as wrong and shameful. Of course, having a disability of any kind or having to use a mobility aid is NOT shameful, disabled people are NOT useless and using an aid is NOT a sign of weakness. Yet, the way disabilities are viewed manifests itself in many ways, and with it often comes an impact on people’s lives. The stigma ignores the fact that people with disabilities are as diverse as any other person. An aid does not tell you anything about how smart, happy, or successful their lives are. Yet, there is an assumption that it impacts your abilities at school, work and home, leading to more unemployment amongst disabled than necessary.
The idea that people can “rise above” their disabilities if they wouldn’t give into it (by using a mobility aid), is wrong and hurtful. It suggests that, if they try hard enough, they wouldn’t need them. So, we’re not trying enough? This is simply not true. Some people will be able to stop using their aids at some point in their lives and some people will need to use their aid forever – and there is nothing wrong with that.
The stigma around mobility aids causes harm to those who use them.
It feels as though people with disabilities are seen as less desirable, which makes it harder to find love. Providing accessibility is seen as a hassle, so a lot of buildings and activities aren’t inclusive to people with mobility aids. Their lives are seen as less worthy and therefore they experience bullying and exclusion. These images and stereotypes are felt by people needing mobility aids. The comments they get while using the mobility aids are painful. They highlight the feelings they are already feeling and the fears they have, of being viewed as different or being ridiculed. These feelings make it a lot harder to actually use the aid, even if they need it. This might stop them from using their aid, which increases the risks of them hurting themselves, limiting themselves or even stop engaging at all.
Over the years I have learned to ignore the stares and set boundaries with those intruding my privacy.
I have learned to embrace the aid and stop listening to the whispers. But the fact that I had to learn how to deal with others while using my mobility aids, besides also having to deal with the world being inaccessible (which I could fill another article about) shows me how big the stigma actually is.
A mobility aid brings freedom and independence. It is just a tool. Those of us with mobility aids want to be treated just like anyone else, not as a lesser part of society. The danger of this stigma is big.
Now at last, what CAN you say instead of the stereotyping sentences stated earlier.
‘Hi, good to see you again!’
‘How are you?’
‘Love your tshirt!’
‘Sorry, can I pass please?’
‘Want to meet for a coffee later?’
Just things you would say to everybody else.