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Monday, June 30, 2014

I'm Not Going To Run You Over: Why Comparing My Chair To A Car Doesn't Help

It is fairly common for parents with curious young children to explain a wheelchair as "like a car". I understand the reflex to explain it this way; it is an easy analogy, especially for the masses of toddlers that appear to be obsessed with wheels of any kind. But to all parents out there tempted by this explanation, note that you are not doing me any favors by comparing my power wheelchair to a car. In case you’ve forgotten, cars are an age-old way to scare kids into being cautious. They represent danger to her young mind because society is constantly reminding kids that cars run them over, pop their balls that roll into the street, and are the main reason we are raised "to look both ways". Cars are also a great way to get around and a modern convenience, but as far as a little kid playing kickball on the lawn is concerned, they are the reason to hold mommy's hand crossing the avenue and an easy way to get hurt. Thus, you can gather that the wheelchair car association naturally could lead to a similar connotation of danger and make little children afraid that people using wheelchairs are the scary entities looking to roll over their toes.
Well-meaning parents don't make it easier to dispel the idea when rather than teaching their children to say hello and walk beside me on the street, they loudly encourage them to "get out of the way” before they get run over. In the same family of well-intentioned but ignorant comments you can find "she's going to run you over,” "watch your toes” and “Johnny… LOOK.OUT,” all said in a similarly loud, exaggerated “the boogie man is coming” kind of voice. You may not realize it, but scooping Johnny out of my way when I likely was not even near his little toes results in him seeing me as nothing more than some kind of threat, safely avoided by responsible behavior. It is extremely isolating when young people, who will someday be adults themselves, are essentially alerted about me, often from several feet away, much in the same manner that one would tell their child about a hazard or a particularly undesirable germ. Then in their very impressionable minds, people “like me” are not worth talking to or even approaching without fear and concern for their appendages.
What's more is that attitude relies on preconceived assumptions about my ability to operate my own wheelchair. To those who don't know, I don't use it to careen through town as a hobby. It is my primary mode of transportation. I operate it about sixteen hours a day, every day of the year, because for whatever reason, crawling to my school, my friends' houses, and the local businesses seems to be an unpopular idea. It is pretty insulting when people don't know me assume that by default way of getting around is haphazard, reckless, and most certainly going to amputate your child’s fingers and toes. I am a lifelong wheelie, and I don't want to hurt anybody, despite my very scary exterior… the “Frozen” themed “I like warm hugs!” button on my headrest is sure to haunt many childhood dreams.
So, no, my chair is not a car, and it’s not even much like a car. It is like my legs, and it is the reason I can live my life. This brings me to another flaw in the car analogy: cars, while extremely useful, are a convenience, and in some places, even a luxury. My chair is a lifeline and if it breaks, I would essentially be stuck either in bed or in a push chair that allows someone else to dictate where I go or if I go there at all. Remember that it is not to be treated with a sense of novelty, because it is so necessary that I regard it as an extension of my body. Yes, that means using it as a coat hanger, scratching post, or a lounger without my permission is probably not advisable. This is especially true if you are a sweaty, slightly inebriated middle- aged man looking to lounge on my handlebars at an otherwise enjoyable concert.
I love my chair very much; it is so “me” in so many ways. It carries souvenirs from my years at summer camp, buttons with slogans about anything and everything, buttons honoring my loved ones in heaven, and my backpack whose contents are ever-mysterious, and usually include a number of things I forgot existed. But unlike the idea that often accompanies the car comparison, I don't really think of it as "fun" to ride around. It is as natural to me as walking, so I fail to see the fascination. Although it is tempting, I assure you that very few people would be eager to tell me if “walking around on those feet is fun”. Nor would they find it very natural to have someone telling them how good they are at walking (wide eyes, exaggerated voice: WOW! You’re really good at walking. I mean really good. I could never!) While I take pride in driving my chair very well, I don't understand why people seem so surprised that I am not a blundering, incompetent fool at using my “legs”. Imagine if I assumed that you were going to stomp on me every time you walk by, and took great care to tell my young child to “WATCH OUT” for you, while failing to make it clear that you are even a person.
It especially fascinates and frustrates me when parents yell and have their children scatter when I am still 30 feet away as if it were part of their "family plan" for a natural disaster evacuation. I can see the PSA now: “See a wheelchair coming? Grab your kids! Walk, don’t run to a ‘safe spot’ chosen by your family. Be prepared! (Prepared, bright eyed children smile and flash a thumbs up, anxious to earn their wheelchair preparedness badge). I totally get it… it would be a bummer to get run over by a heavy power wheelchair, but it would also be unpleasant to get stepped on, stepped over, or trampled, all lovely things we can blame on feet. So, unless you want me to teach my future children to scatter and assume you are going to crush them every time you walk by on your feet, let's make a deal: if you see me coming, walk next to me and say hello. Assume competence, and remember that I don't like to hurt little children or anyone else. Do a better job than the random mother who allowed her child to scream about how I was going to run her over and say “that's better” when I passed them, instead of telling her to say hi when I tried to talk to her. My wheelchair is not a car, which means that all those old tired jokes, unsolicited “beep beeps” and inquiries about my license can be laid to rest. My chair is like my legs, so please don’t assume that I am racing every time I move. Sometimes I just want to be beside someone, and based on my observations about most legs out there, you ambulatory folk are definitely not racing every time you move… so why should I?

I don't mind showing your kid my chair at all, but I want them to know that it is part of my space, not to be poked, touched, prodded, kicked or jumped on. I don't want them to be afraid of it and in turn, be afraid of me. I just want them to respect it as my way of getting around, and be assured that I am much more interested in meeting them than running over their toes.
*Author's note: While I think of my chair as "my legs", you'll be interested to know that I also, in fact, have two literal legs. Kids, are your minds blown yet?