Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Follow-up: Staring, people's assumptions

Yesterday I posted a blog entry about the issue of staring at people in wheelchairs. Today, I came across another interesting viewpoint, from Tiffany Carlson (@TiffCarlson).

It is from the EasyStand blog, in a post entitled "We Can Live The Good Life Too":

Sometimes I get the feeling that everybody is staring at me. Not because I’m in a wheelchair, and not because my hair is brighter than some car headlights. They stare because they’re surprised – they’re surprised to see a woman in a wheelchair who doesn’t fit the typical “wheelchair person” mold, and they do a double take.

Someone in a wheelchair should be pitiable, helpless, unable to “truly” live fully, but when they see me whiz by, or especially once they get to know me, the people who’ve NEVER known someone with a disability, and if asked – would probably say our lives could never be fulfilling – find an overwhelming blanket of confusion settle in. Crippled yet accomplished…and possibly enviable? Brain does not compute.

This ties into what I mentioned in yesterday's blog entry about hanging out with friends and how both my friends and I are stared at in public as if it's an alien concept for a person in a wheelchair to have friends and hang out with them. I don't know if it's the archaic notion that people in wheelchairs are "supposed to be" shuttered away from the public and other people, but it certainly seems to befuddle a lot of people.

In addition, I am more mobile and agile than people assume. On more than one occasion, I've had people make surprised remarks about how fast I am and how well I can get around. At one recent job interview, the person on the phone was doubtful as to whether I can do the job (it's in retail) but the interviewer quickly saw that I had no problem getting around even in a wheelchair, and said, "Yeah, you move around pretty well. It might not even be a problem in this job at all."

They don't know that I am capable of things like wheeling at full running speed for 3 kilometres along the False Creek seawall without stopping, and then some. They don't know that I've done more things in a wheelchair than my time out of it. They don't know a lot of things that would surprise them because it's assumed that if you can't walk properly, your life... well, kind of sucks.

Those things really give a new spin on the idea of the "typical" wheelchair user. I have a habit of doing things that are not expected of wheelchair users, such as go around independently or hanging out with people I know. After all, this kind of thing is expected from other people, so why not us?

Tiffany ends her piece by saying:

You can’t stop people from jumping to assumptions and throwing their old school stereotypes on you. At the end of the day you just need to live your life without care of what anyone thinks.

It's definitely true. When I was adjusting to life with a disability, I found that people tended to help a lot, sometimes to the point where they are actually being UNhelpful. An example is holding a door open while standing right in front of the doorway, or opening the other double door (which I use for leverage when opening the first double door). I don't need or want the help sometimes but what can you do? The assumption that people in wheelchairs are helpless is something that doesn't disappear overnight; the only thing to do is ignore that and do whatever you would do if those people weren't there.

I may be ranting by now, but I think Tiffany touched on a very big topic that is often overstated but under-analysed. Assumptions permeate our lives more than it should, but they certainly make life interesting.

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