Saturday, February 6, 2016

The 10 dorkiest things that happen to wheelchair users

Some people get a sudden, inexplicable mental block when they meet a wheelchair user, even if it’s not the first time. They get confused and complicate things with absurd actions and words, blissfully ignoring the easiest thing to do: to just behave the way they would with anyone else. Faced with the unexpected “ordeal” of meeting someone who gets around on wheels, the cog of stupidity begins to whir, resulting in some truly dorky behavior. Here are ten of the gems that in our experience crop up time and again: ten things no one would ever dream of doing with an able-bodied person.

Despised and dreaded by many wheelchair users, it can come at the most unexpected times – especially if you don’t look your age – and from absolutely anyone. From the little old lady who thinks we’re all angels, to your parents’ friend who only sees you once a year, to the dynamic shop assistant who treats you like a child, to the suit-and-tie businessman who greets everyone else with a shake of the hand and reserves this preferential treatment just for you. No matter if you’re fifteen or twenty-five, this greeting is incredibly popular - along with its close relative, cheek pinching.

It happens from time to time. A family friend comes to visit and asks to be updated on all the news, including new and old partners. But they’re only asking about your brothers and sisters, glossing over the possibility that you too might have some exciting news.
A cousin you don’t see much is getting married and tells your siblings that their partners are, of course, also invited… But she doesn’t say that to you.
A great-aunt asks for all the gossip on your brother’s latest girlfriend, making you complicit in her sly observations. And you play along with her, although all the time you’re thinking “hey, you could ask about MY love life too, you know…”, but no, she’s already moved on to the next topic.
They seem to think that asking a young woman in a wheelchair if she has a boyfriend makes as much sense as asking a five-year-old the same question. Everyone in the room would obviously either start laughing good-naturedly or just be baffled, wouldn’t they?
Of course they would.

At the doctor’s, in shops, at the bank... it can happen virtually anywhere. The scenario is the following, the dynamics are always more or less the same:
Characters: me, any helper or friend pushing my wheelchair, a shop assistant.
Shop assistant (addressing my helper): - Hello!
Me and my helper: - Hello!
Me: - Do you have any floor lamps?
Shop assistant: (a bit confused by hearing my voice; he was expecting my helper to speak, but she keeps silent): - Sorry?
Me: - Do you have any floor lamps?
Shop assistant: (still slightly stunned, addressing my helper): - Do you mean a tall lamp or a bedside lamp?
Me: - A tall lamp. Something to light up the room as much as possible.
Shop assistant (to my helper): - Yes, please come over here, I will show you something (followed by a bewildered look towards me. He is starting to wonder if he should be talking to me. And amazingly, he does): - How many Watts?
Me (happy and satisfied): - 100 Watts.
Shop assistant (to my helper again. Talking to her is so much easier - you must understand, he’s already made quite an effort): - Is this OK?
Me: - Yes, please, but I prefer it in gray.
Shop assistant (who’s starting to feel vaguely annoyed because my helper won’t answer his questions): - It’s 20 euros.
Me: - Alright, I'll take it.
My helper pays at the desk. Everyone says goodbye.
EXIT me and helper
To be fair, a scenario only really plays out to this extreme with the very old or the very ignorant. I suppose there can’t have been many wheelchair users going shopping in the first half of the 20th century.

Closely related to number 3 (which is sometimes its natural consequence), this never fails to provide abundant comic fodder. It pops up when you least expect it: in the form of nosy pensioners, shop assistants (see above) and lobotomized teachers. While they may be unsurprised that you can make yourselves understood, they’re somehow stunned that you can actually talk sensibly, intelligently and articulately. Some even remain speechless.

I don’t expect everyone to get down to my level, but sometimes people just don’t realize that during long discussions it would be polite to bend down a little so I don’t have to lean back at a neck-breaking angle all the time.
Even just making sure they’re within the eye-line of the person they’re talking to would be a good start. Many a time I find myself talking to people while staring at their belly rather than looking them in the face. (Although this is at least preferable to talking to the crotch of someone who is particularly tall, especially when they move closer to talk with my helper! It really isn’t the greatest experience: I’m forced to choose between staring at my knees or casually looking elsewhere.)

The idea that the disabled are in a sexual class of their own - or if they’re not, that they would like to be - has apparently taken firm root. People think we are only interested in other disabled people.
This idea pops up every now and then. An assistant of mine once encouraged me to get to know a girl in a wheelchair who lived in the same university halls as me, and told me seriously that we could even “become friends”. That same assistant also gave me knowing gestures and winks about a guy in a wheelchair sitting at a table in the library. Clearly this person wasn’t exactly the ideal assistant, and I am talking about an extreme case, but there’s no doubt it reflects a very widespread general idea: that wheelchair users will always look for others like them and will find other people in wheelchairs irresistibly attractive. Sometimes I wonder if people think we have our very own sexual orientation.

Another widespread idea is that the average disabled person has few – or no –  commitments during the day, that we are almost always at home and that we don’t have anything to do. So there’s no need for visitors to call ahead. 
As a disabled person, I have noticed that more superficial acquaintances, distant relatives and people making courtesy visits while on holiday in the area often decide to drop by without calling first, inevitably messing up my plans for the day.  And something tells me that this happens less often to the able-bodied.
You finally got a morning all to yourself so you can sort through that mountain of paperwork that’s threatening to bury you? Bad luck: you missed your phone pinging half hour ago with a text from Giovanna: “Hi there, I’ll be dropping by in a while to say hello!”
You decided to use your first free afternoon after the summer exam session to watch that film you’ve been looking forward to for the last month? Exactly ten minutes after it starts, someone knocks at the door. Naturally, you can forget the usual “apologies” that you’d normally receive from unexpected guests.
I know that in some countries where hospitality is sacred, the idea of a guest calling before coming round is not even contemplated. And sometimes I find myself admiring this approach, which our selfish, productivity-focused society has forgotten. But the fact is, I live in this society, so it’s natural for me to expect a certain kind of behavior. However, apparently the same rules don’t always apply to the disabled.
I know that we aren’t the only ones who get surprise visits, and that everyone has to put up with an unwanted guest on occasion. So sometimes I wonder if I’m intolerant, a misanthropist or just plain paranoid. But unfortunately, a recent event confirmed that there is a basic cultural problem and my intolerance is absolutely justified. A relative inviting himself to visit us during the Christmas holidays came out with: “After all, you’re always at home anyway, aren’t you?”

When I go shopping, sales assistants often greet me with the same forced cheerfulness and jaw-breaking smiles they normally reserve for four-year-olds out shopping with their mom. This wouldn’t actually be so different from the normal attitude of most shop assistants, if it wasn't that they also use that unmistakable singsong lilt reserved for kids (which I’m actually slightly allergic to in any case). My appearance probably doesn’t help: a twenty-three-year-old who barely looks twenty. Maybe this only happens to young wheelchair users (can any middle-aged man confirm or disprove this theory?). The point is that a good half of shop assistants and civil servants, plus a few random strangers, tend to address me with an affectionate familiarity similar to that of the head-patters (see point 1).

This one can also be found in the superficial Internet etiquette guides on how to behave with people with disabilities. Although I don't agree with one of the most commonly repeated points (I don’t consider my wheelchair as an extension of my body, but rather as a comfortable chair with wheels), I agree with the principle that it’s rude to touch a stranger's wheelchair without a good reason. (For clarity, I am not talking about friends or acquaintances here.)
I don’t know why, but older people especially often lean against my wheelchair while they’re struggling to extricate themselves from a crowd, such as when leaving church. There are two problems here:
1) My manual wheelchair is very lightweight, and if someone leans against it with all their weight I risk being overturned. This has actually already happened, and every time I feel a heavy touch on my wheelchair’s handles I basically lose a year of my life.
2) I wonder whether people would lean as thoughtlessly on a stranger’s shoulders? Because that’s exactly how it feels to me. (So maybe to some extent I do consider it an extension of my body after all... :) )

Sometimes it seems as if being in a wheelchair makes people think you’ve somehow lost your capacity for self-determination. So they start to treat you like a “parcel”; for example, when my mother is accompanying me to the dentist, it’s not unusual for one of her acquaintances to ask: “Are you taking her for a walk?”
If someone else has to push your wheelchair, for some obscure reason all of a sudden you’re more passive than a rag doll.

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