Wednesday, July 10, 2013


English: Close view of profile of a Kodiak bro...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Wheelchairs are scary. How do I know this? The mothers tell me. They tell me by the way that they pull their children close when they see me coming.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit melodramatic. These mothers may be, after all, protecting me from their snotty nosed little brats. Or they may not be scared of my appearance, but simply want to ensure that their children’s toes don’t get run over. But no matter the reason, I’m never able to pass by their watchful eyes unnoticed.

For most of the day I don’t think about my wheelchair, much like you don’t think about your legs. I usually don’t feel conspicuous when I am out in public. I carry on as if I blend into the landscape like every other person. But I don’t. I am reminded of this when I pass by a mirror or when I look at a photograph of myself in a wheelchair (or I approach a mother with children).

It’s not only from an aesthetic point of view that I temporarily forget I’m in a wheelchair; it’s also from a functional point of view. As I zoom down the aisle in a grocery store, for example, I am not riding in my chair. It is more like I am one with my chair. In fact, I would argue that in situations like this, my method of mobility is superior to yours. I glide as smoothly as a skater on ice, while you plod along in your awkward and primitive bipedal fashion.

Now, back to the issue of appearances…

I expect that when people see me coming, unless they are my close acquaintances, they either consciously or subconsciously take note of something unusual. Given that my wheelchairs are rather large and elaborate power chairs, not sleek manual ones, I stand out even more. Depending on someone’s ease and comfort with people in wheelchairs, they may experience any of a number of emotions ranging from pity to compassion to discomfort to indifference. But no matter how they feel, they almost certainly see a metal and plastic contraption coming towards them. If we don’t interact with one another, then that’s largely all they see.

I like to think, however, that if we make eye contact or especially if we speak to one another, then my leviathan transportation device fades to the background, and the essential person who I am emerges in the foreground. This remains the case for as long as we interact. As they watch me pull away, I wonder how long it takes them to be reminded of my differentness.

In fact, when Kim and I walk the neighborhood together and I’m in my Invacare wheelchair, before we leave the house I have her remove my headrest. I like the headrest because it allows me to fully recline in the wheelchair when I am at home. But I also understand that it makes me look that much more disabled when it is attached. Moving about without the headrest renders me ever so slightly less scary and more approachable.

Of course, the iBot is a whole ‘nother thing. Typically I am in balance mode when I’m out in public. I’m asking for attention; I’m pretty much begging for it. You can’t help but notice me. In fact, it’s amusing to see how hard people try not to stare. But Kim confirms for me that they gawk shamelessly after I pass by. My attitude when I’m in the iBot is that, yes, it’s a big scary contraption, but it’s almost certainly the most interesting thing you’ll see that day. The mothers hold their children (or cubs) especially close when I pass by in balance mode, but who can blame them.

I’m not finding fault with healthy people. I’m the same way. If I see someone who appears unusual for any number of reasons, I can’t help but take note of them, and I can’t help but at least entertain my various biases about their particular appearance.

It’s an extra burden that handicapped people must carry. We don’t blend in, and we can’t hide in the crowd. That’s all the more reason we should try to smile as much as possible and interact in a positive manner with the people around us – it facilitates the lowering of these artificial barriers.
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  1. oh, i can relate on so many levels! i HATE seeing pictures of myself in my chair - little manual one tho it may be. it's been a few years, but i still don't feel "one with it," and don't feel like i ever will be. and i remember, in a former life, taking my son and my day-care charge, to the playground on a weekday morning(i was a homedad) an odd place for a man to be, and the moms would switch to protect-mode when i came by. i mostly feel wheelchair-conspicuous by being waist high, with almost everyone, so it seems, not even noticing me.

  2. What I have found with using my scooter, is that people don't see me coming at all-- they just aren't looking down at that level. I've even seen family members looking for me in a crowd and I can be 20 feet away from them but they're scanning higher for me. It always startles them when I drive up and they realize I was right there all the time. They don't "see me" until I'm about 5 feet which point they probably would clutch their children to them if we all weren't such geezers already!

  3. Stephen, I've seen some young, athletic manual wheelchair users who definitely seem at one with their chairs. I remember watching one particular athlete in an airport. He pulled his luggage with one hand and adeptly propelled his wheelchair at a high rate of speed with only one hand. It was impressive! But these people don't have MS.

    Daphne, yes, there is a lot of that. I should have qualified my post to say something like "if they see me at all, they see a metal and plastic contraption."

  4. Hi Mitch, I have always found that negotiating a dense crowd is much easier in the iBOT balance mode than other chairs. People always seem to notice me coming and get out of the way. Perhaps they think I'm going to fall on them or they just want to step back and get a better look at the thing.


  5. Charlie, I'm glad to know that you're still out there. I hadn't heard from you in a while. Yes, there is that "parting of the seas" phenomena that occurs in balance mode. Makes me feel godlike :-)