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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Wheelchair Bound

I do not get into semantic discussions about the differences between disabled, handicapped, physically challenged, crippled, differently abled, etc. I find such discussions boring and pointless. The average American is far too unaware of disability to grasp the implications of such a discussion. I prefer to spend my time focusing on disability rights as civil rights, a connection very few people make in spite of the fact the ADA was passed almost 20 years ago. However, one term I despise is wheelchair bound. This pops up in headlines on a regular basis and I find it shockingly dehumanizing. I am inspired to write about this today because I have been reading reports about the "wheelchair bound" woman that was shouted down at a town hall meeting. The town hall meeting in question was organized by Congressman Frank Pallone, a NJ Democrat. The meeting took place in Red Bank, NJ and You Tube videos illustrate the meeting was ugly--it brought out the worst in people rather than a debate about the merits of the proposed health care reform pushed by President Obama. I for one would never attend such a meeting. I know my views would be decided unwelcome and I do not want to subject myself to the sort of abuse the "wheelchair bound woman" was subjected to. The woman in question pointed out what many people with a disability know all too well: access to health care for people with a disability is expensive and virtually impossible to access without full time employment and benefits. Given the fact 66% of people with a disability are unemployed nearly two thirds lack adequate health care. The woman pointed out this was wrong and that she was worried she would lose her home because she had to pay so much for required medications.

The reaction of people at the town hall meeting to the woman above was as I expected: nasty and mean spirited. What I did not expect was the press reaction. Multiple news stories have appeared and all state a new low was set by the audience in question that shouted down a "wheelchair bound woman". In many reports the woman's name is not even mentioned. The new low that has been set was not established by the rude people that attended the town hall meeting. Their behavior was boorish in the extreme, totally unacceptable by all standards. To me, the new low was set by the press that characterized the woman as "wheelchair bound". This term is as antiquated as it is dehumanizing. I assure you I am not nor have I ever been "bound to my wheelchair". What people do not understand is that my wheelchair, all wheelchairs, are adaptive devices that liberate and empower people with a host of disabilities. I think my wheelchair is cool. Little kids think my wheelchair is very cool. In fact I was once favorable compared to a Power Ranger when eating at a local pizza place by a pre-school aged boy. This was a heady compliment. The problem is that people are taught wheelchairs are bad and those that use them tragic figures. I forcefully reject such faulty logic. The reality is that using a wheelchair is in some environments a distinct advantage. I never get tired in museums and can navigate an airline terminal far faster than a person walking. Can a wheelchair be limiting? Sure, finding hiking trails wide enough is always a problem as they are usual narrow foot paths. Some major Western cities present difficulties. For instance, navigating from the Seattle waterfront to the center of the city can be challenge due to steep hills. However, a little creativity and use of public garages and elevators negates this problem.

The point I am trying to emphasize is that a wheelchair is an adaptive device and an efficient one. I am no more bound to a wheelchair than one is bound to their feet or bipedal locomotion. The stigma attached to the use of a wheelchair is a social designation that is simply wrong and an injustice to every wheelchair user. Thus I am appalled when a few minutes ago I googled wheelchair bound. The results were as follows:

"Wheelchair-Bound Woman Shouted Down"
"Traveling with the Wheelchair Bound"
"School Emergency Policy: Leave Wheelchair Bound Behind"
"Wheelchair-bound triathlete Embraces Life"
"Wheelchair Bound Man Struck and Killed by Car"
"Wheelchair Bound Woman Dies"

Replace the words "wheelchair bound" with "bipedal" and do they make sense? In a word, no. They do not make sense because it is not socially acceptable to dehumanize those that walk with two feet. However, the same dehumanization is acceptable when referring to people that use a wheelchair. Note here the word use. I use a wheelchair like one uses their legs. It is nothing more and nothing less than a different way to navigate the world. The problems I encounter are thus not physical but social, the failure of society to negotiate difference. In my case the use of a wheelchair. This is as wrong as the headlines above and frankly it pisses me off. I am angry not because of my inability to walk but because I am not treated equally, that is with the same respect as a man that can walk. I am weary of this lack of respect and had hoped at this point in my life society would have evolved more than it has. Headlines with the words "wheelchair bound" in them reveal nothing about the person being written about but rather a significant social failure that needlessly makes life more difficult for millions of Americans.


Wheelchair Dancer said...

Yes! Yes! Must be something in the air this AM that boundedness -- if there is such a word -- is on our minds.
THIS is part of my experience in the dance world where the irony of a bound dancer seems not to register.

Good morning,


Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D., Instructor said...

Yeah, I saw that same headline but just didn't know where to start with it. You said it all, succinctly and powerfully. Thank you.

I use a cane, and it's unbelievable what an issue it can be for some folks.

I would like to add that shouting one of us down is no different than shouting down an able-bodied person or one with an invisible disability. I mean, what, we get a pass or something? Gimme a break.

william Peace said...

I really liked your essay from last year on boundedness. I did not think of the analogy to a car--no one is indeed bound to a car, wheelchair, or bipedal locomotion. I would think the concept of bound is particularly strong in the world of dance with its emphasis and awareness of the body. I teach at Purchase College and always struck by dance students who appear to never forget about the way they move. I agree we are on the same page so to speak this morning.

william Peace said...

Virginia, No individual should be shouted down regardless of whether they are standing or using a wheelchair. What took place at the town hall meeting was grossly wrong as was the reporting afterwards. Lost is the point the woman was trying to make: without full time employment access to health insurance and affordable medical care is virtually impossible. For people with a disability this is a huge impediment given the high rate of unemployment. Thanks for the kind words.

Becs said...

Why am I not surprised that this happened in Jersey?

My roomie from college was forced to walk by her parents, who thought adding a wheelchair to her very obvious and unusual condition would be just too much. (For whom?)

She's long since shaken all that off and happily embraced a power chair, using a manual chair when she travels. She told me the most liberating day of her life was when she got her driver's license.

Wheelchair Dancer said...


I agree about dance students (well, dancers in general); I often feel as if I am their worst case nightmare. I flip between moments of wicked enjoyment and painful humiliation.

That said, academia (where I spent 8 professionally successful and personally awful years) wasn't much better. I thought I could hide in my head and ignore my body.



william Peace said...

WD, I love teaching dance students as a group. They have a work ethic that puts others to shame. But yikes, they are self aware and absorbed with their bodies. I can readily imagine they would consider using a wheelchair a horrible fate.
Becs, NJ is like any other state except for the long ugly turnpike it is famous for. People everywhere just don't get what an empowering device a wheelchair is. I suspect if designs were cool that attitude might change. As it is now, most wheelchair are utilitarian and poorly constructed.

Matthew Smith said...

Given how editors string nouns together in headlines, they could have saved a bit of space here by simply putting "wheelchair woman" and the readers would have got the point.

FridaWrites said...

Well, "woman in wheelchair" or "wheelchair user" would save space. The style guidelines (from what I remember) say to avoid terms such as "wheelchair bound," so I'm aghast at how this is ignored while better gender constructions, in contrast, have been adopted. The biggest problem is that most people pick their terms from the media. About 5 years ago, I use the term wheelchair bound to describe part of my childhood, but then I realized that's because the wheelchair for bodycasts wouldn't go anywhere much, either in the house or in the pre-ADA world. When I started using the scooter in the post-ADA world, I immediately saw that phrasing was wrong and knew it was my freedom.

william Peace said...

Frida and Matthew, Why identify the woman as a wheelchair user at all headlines? The point she tried to make was that people with a disability often cannot get health insurance and thus face exceedingly high health care costs. This is worthy of discussion and instead the focus is on the heckling she was subjected to. Sure the heckling was wrong. I am just tired of the media covering nothing but those who are screaming about health care reform. My goodness, even the President was heckled last night. What has happened to us as human beings? Are we incapable of nuanced debate?

Matthew Smith said...

I think the reason why they identified the woman as being in a wheelchair is because it was relevant; "woman heckled at town hall meeting" wouldn't have conveyed the fact that the woman was disabled, let alone the fact that she was still ill.

Also, people are always at risk of causing offence, even without intending it, when they talk about these matters. It's the same with race - most black people identify as such, but some insist on Afro-American or "African British" in the case of one group here in the UK who say that the term "black" is derogatory. People use "wheelchair-bound" to mean that the person must use a wheelchair, no more and no less. They don't realise it offends some people. Nowadays you get some people with very severe disabilities who say they don't think of themselves as disabled - one such person I've come across is the WildKat lady (Kim Robbins) who is a blind, C6 quad and if the definition of disabled excludes that, then it doesn't mean much. Terms change at least once in each generation and the old ones become offensive before people who use them realise it.

william Peace said...

Mathew, I agree the headline was used to capture the readers interest. I disagree about the use of wheelchair bound. As I prefaced my remarks, the debate over the usage of most terms associated with disability are not of interest. Certain words however are indeed objectionable. One such word is wheelchair bound. I liken this to the debate surrounding the word retard, another word that must be stricken from the vocabulary. Both retard and wheelchair are too dehumanizing to remain in usage today.