Caption - the author, five years ago. Text description - A woman half sitting on a car bonnet with a forearm crutch in her hands.
You don’t see that every day, the article says.
The headline is compelling. ‘A man has sensationally jumped out of his wheelchair after Roger Federer hit an unbelievable shot in his three sets to one loss against Novak Djokavic at the Australian Open semi finals’.
A miracle, they say.
‘The ~miracle~ occurred after Federer managed to get onto the end of a particularly slight touch from Djokovic’, the article reads, and is followed by a flurry of Twitter posts mocking or denouncing the man in the wheelchair, who had the audacity to stand up in his excitement.
Well, it’s miracle time at my house – along with the homes of millions of other wheelchair users who do not have a spinal cord injury.
Let’s explain wheelchairs. They are mobility devices, used to assist people who cannot walk, who cannot walk far, cannot walk without pain, cannot walk for long distances because they have breathing problems, fatigue issues, brittle bones. They’re metal shapes with wheels which confer mobility, not diagnostic status, onto the user.
I have limb girdle muscular dystrophy, and I can stand. I do so to throw my wheelchair into the back of my car, and I can walk without much assistance inside my home. I hold onto furniture, I sometimes fall over, and I cannot navigate steps. My ability to walk is decreasing, and my gait is peculiar – I look a little like a Thunderbird. It is like I have ball bearings in my hips. Getting up from the floor is harder than standing from a sitting position.
This is not unusual for many wheelchair users. Folks with cerebral palsy often use a wheelchair for the same reason and many of them can also stand and walk. Different people have different levels of impairment – my disability is degenerative. And there is no blanket rule that says, ‘Wheelchair users cannot stand’.
Don’t get me wrong. We have enormous fun with your shitty, ableist, stereotyping misconceptions. I have lost count of the number of times a well meaning and prayerful person has ‘laid hands’ on me to pray for my ‘recovery’ – it is always hilarious when you stand up at the end. And I thank the stars that my feet still work when I need to get up or down a curb or step, and curse those same stars when I stand up with shopping on the back of my chair, which painfully smashes the footplate into my non-paralysed feet as it tips over.
But this gets old very quickly. Like many other wheelchair users, I am reluctant to stand in supermarkets for just this reason – people make assumptions about my impairment, decide ‘how disabled’ I am. If you can walk, they ask, why do you need a wheelchair? It does not matter how far you can walk, or how much difficulty it takes you, or whether you are likely to dislocate a leg or shoulder – you are ‘not disabled’.
This image, shared by George Takei last year, is another example of where stereotyping leads to public mockery, stigmatising and hate speech against people with disability.
Image description - A disabled woman stands up out of her wheelchair to reach the top shelf of the liquor aisle. The image is taken from a screenshot of a Facebook page. The meme reads, 'There has been a miracle'.
That stereotyping reinforces misconceptions and stigmas around disabled people. It’s not far from the language of ‘burden’, tossed out on the front page of a newspaper to tell Australians why we were not worthy of receiving disability care and support, or a disability support pension. It is why disabled people are dying in the United Kingdom, why we constantly have to ‘prove’ how disabled we are. It is why we painted as leaners and scroungers and rorters, people who are too busy sitting down being lazy to get a job or people who live off benefits, even when we are unable to find employment because of that same stigmatisation.
I’m walking away from this conversation – not very steadily, but walking nonetheless.