Blog Bonus: Reinventing the Wheel (Chair, That Is)

Welcome to the bonus round!

Since September has been such a busy month, I decided to give all my lovely, patient readers a bonus “egg” from the Nest. Today’s topic centers on redeeming and reinventing the wheelchair.

If you’ve read some of the early posts on this blog, you know I’ve talked a little bit about wheelchairs–the benefits of power wheelchairs over manual ones, for instance. I’ve also talked about how it gets on my nerves that so many people assume disability always = wheelchair, and that some people will easily accommodate for wheelchairs but not much else. However, I have never dedicated a whole post to wheelchairs and I think it’s time I did.

An article written for in the mid-1990s said that over 6.8 million Americans use wheelchairs and other mobility devices. I’m confident that number has grown significantly in the 20 years since that article was written. According to the article, more than 4/10 of people who use mobility devices are unable to perform major activities or activities associated with daily living. That’s 2/5, or two out of five of every mobility device users. Four-fifths of these people report they have difficulty using or getting to public transportation systems. In other words, the wheelchair is a big presence in the world of disability, folks–and maybe we’re not responding to it as well as we should.

I think there are a few reasons for the lack of response, or inadequate response. Here they are:

1. Unawareness of universal design. The ADA mandates that public buildings should be accessible. Yet many are not; they were built before the ADA was signed and so “grandfathered in.” I went to a college with this issue; one out of about five of their major buildings had an elevator. And even though I did not use a wheelchair, I still had a hard time because not every staircase had railings. Not every curb had a cut or was associated with an alternate route. Not every sidewalk was safe. In fact, I once did a face plant on the concrete in front of about 20 people due to an unrepaired water break. Not pretty, and it netted me a trip to the nurse’s office.

Now, am I saying my college was evil and discriminatory? No way. But “grandfathered in” should not be an excuse. I’d like to see more classes on universal design, rather than a “regular” architecture class inviting PWDs to speak on the issue one time, and then saying, “Okay, that’s done.” I’d like to see children and adults who use mobility devices able to get around on their own, everywhere, without having to stop their normal trajectory and think, “How do I get around this obstacle”–their fifth that day?

2. Lack of true knowledge. As I have said before, most people think wheelchair users will be fine if they just stick a ramp up. Sometimes, though, that ramp is not researched or put in correctly. Sometimes it doesn’t even help. I once saw this on a T-shirt that listed 10 things never to say to a PWD: “Yes, we have an accessible entrance. It’s in the alley next to the garbage cans–just go through the kitchen.”

Really, people? What is this, 1898 England? I wasn’t aware most people still had separate entrances for the, snark, snark, “gentry” vs. “lower class.” You say that’s offensive of me to say? Well, too bad, because that’s exactly what a solution like the one above sounds like to me. Make the effort, before your lack of knowledge becomes total ignorance. (Note that I’m not saying it’s bad for an accessible entrance to be at a back door, per se. It looks awful, however, if that entrance is also at a place where you keep your garbage, or in an area that sends the message, “People who walk, come in–people who can’t, let’s hustle you inside under the radar.”)

3. Money worries. Yes, yes, I know. The economy is tough. But think about this, okay? If you own a store and employ someone who uses a wheelchair, don’t say to that person, “I can’t put in an automatic door because it costs too much money.” Ideally, access should be part of every business’ budget. Remember too, that when automatic doors or other “modifications” are put in, but not specifically tied to disabilities, money is often not raised as an issue. There’s something wrong with that.

4. Misuse of interdependence. I have said before that in many cases, interdependence is better than independence, which those who work with PWDs often hold up as an ultimate goal. I stand by that statement. However, don’t use interdependence as an excuse not to provide access. If John uses a wheelchair at work, don’t say, “Yes, I know those doors are heavy–just ask whoever is nearby to help.” Well, what if there is no one nearby? What if John wants to go somewhere on his own? What if he needs access to private files that are inside a room with an inaccessible entrance? I think you get the idea.

5. Stereotyping. This is the biggie, so I saved it for last. This is why I believe we need to “redeem” the wheelchair. Redeem it from what, you ask?

Well, you probably know subconsciously without my telling you. For decades, even centuries, the wheelchair was a symbol of injury and illness. That wasn’t a bigoted thing, either. It just happened because way back then, you normally saw wheelchairs in hospitals and clinics. They were used to transport sick and injured people, many of whom had severe illnesses or were too weak to move around. People in wheelchairs were called “invalids” or “crippled”–because that’s just how we did things. As many history teachers will tell you, we can’t judge the past by what we know now in the future. In other words, yes, we can and should judge things like slavery or the Holocaust because those are morally wrong no matter what. But we can’t judge the people of the past for using words we no longer use or seeing things differently than we do now.

The good thing about living right now though, is that we know better. Wheelchairs no longer automatically equal illness. People who use wheelchairs are vibrant, active, and capable. Yet so often, we continue to act as if people with disabilities, and wheelchair users in particular, are none of these things. Wheelchairs are so inextricably tied to disability that when disability is portrayed in the media, the wheelchair is used to represent all disabilities whether that’s accurate or not. (Most of the time it isn’t). People in wheelchairs are often seen:

-Slumped over
-With jerking arms and legs
-Unable to speak intelligibly or at all
-Wearing exaggerated smiles
-With heads bent or at odd angles

Now, I am NOT saying any of these things are bad. If you use a wheelchair and you can’t hold your head up or your limbs move without your permission, fine! Every disability has a different face and that may be yours. But when the media and the majority of the world take wheelchair use and reduce it to a worst-case scenario picture, or play up the slumped figure and the exaggerated smile, we all lose.

It’s time to reinvent the wheelchair. How do we do that? It won’t be easy, and it may cost money. It may entail some research and it will involve getting to know people beyond the stereotype. Here’s what we do:

-Make universal design a priority
-Encourage comfort and familiarity with many mobility devices. If, for example, you own a company and are curious about accessibility needs, yes, go out and talk to people with disabilities. But at the same time: try using a wheelchair for awhile. Ask a local clinic if you can use a pair of crutches or braces while walking through their campus. The more you know how using a mobility device feels, the better you can serve others.
-Look for active, vibrant people who use mobility devices. If you’re a parent or a teacher of children and teens who use them, encourage activity of all kinds–not just sports, but academic and musical stuff, too. Too many students love theater but don’t participate due to lack of access. Some students might be great at Knowledge Bowl but are skeptical of traveling for the same reason. Make access possible and root for them in all they do.
-Make the wheelchair or mobility device itself attractive. No, a pink wheelchair won’t take cerebral palsy away from that little girl in your class. A crutch painted with favorite team symbols, is still a crutch. But artistic efforts where mobility devices are concerned definitely raise the “cool factor.” You know the phrase “pimp my ride?” Well, taking this in the spirit that it is meant, go to it, already!

Wheelchairs and mobility devices are not negative things. Let’s start treating them like what they are: modifications that help people get around, live fulfilling lives, and even feel a little bit cooler.



  1. Just recently I was able to visit my grandparents back home. My grandmother doesn’t get around very well and can’t walk up stairs although she doesn’t use a wheelchair. My grandparents (especially grandpa) are also big fans of good food, so when my in-laws took me out to a really nice restaurant out there, I thought I’d recommend it to them. My grandmother said “we’ve been there before. The food was good but I didn’t like it because their wheelchair access door was in the back by the trash and ashtray and it feels like you’re not welcome.” I was stunned. As someone who has never had to use these entrances, that had never even occurred to me. Upon thinking about it, I felt pretty bad and disappointed that my grandmother was made to feel that way unfairly. I’ve decided I’ll mention to my in-laws who frequent the place that they should bring it up and see if the management would be willing to make changes.

    Anyway, interesting that your post came up so soon after I’d had to think about this for the first time myself!

    1. Small and interesting world, yes? That’s exactly what I mean–lack of respect for fellow humans who just happen to get around by means other than their feet. I’m also disappointed that someone would do that to senior citizens in particular, because respecting elderly people is so important but seems to have gone out the window in recent decades.

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