by Laura Hershey
I don't know whether nondisabled people, or even the newly injured who are still getting accustomed to moving through the world in a wheelchair, can fully comprehend the connection between person and machine. When I'm in it, my wheelchair really does feel and function like a part of me. As such, I expect other people to give my wheelchair parts the same respect and/or affection that I want for my fleshier parts.
Here's what got me thinking about this: Last week I was getting on the city bus, heading home after a busy day. I backed onto the lift and the driver raised it. I started backing down the aisle toward the wheelchair space. Suddenly, from directly behind me, I heard a man's unnecessarily loud voice say, "I gotcha, baby sister!" Simultaneously I felt my wheelchair handlebars being gripped tightly, and pulled.
"No!" I shouted. Because I use a sip-and-puff tube to operate my wheelchair, my mouth was busy, so I had to keep my response short. "I got it!"
He kept pulling, and repeated, "I gotcha, baby sister!" He added, "I'm helping!"
By this time, the driver had converted the lift back into steps, and my attendant Krista had climbed aboard. She saw the guy yanking on my handlebars, and yelled, "Leave her chair alone!"
Perhaps he instinctively had more respect for someone standing, confronting him at eye level. He finally let me go, but continued to protest that he was just "helping."
Later, as I thought about this, I tried a thought experiment: What if a man came up behind an ambulatory woman and grabbed her tightly by both shoulders and started forcibly guiding her toward a seat? She would no doubt protest loudly, as I had done. If the man hesitated to release his grip, I imagine that another passenger might physically intervene. If a police officer could easily be summoned, the man might get a warning, or maybe even be arrested for assault.
For that's exactly what this felt like to me – an assault. It was a direct, physical affront to my person. This man wasn't just messing with some piece of equipment. He was interfering with my mobility, my power to position myself, to go where I want. My wheelchair is a part of my means of being in the world. In other words, it was part of me that he grabbed – my wheelchair, my body, myself.
Would anyone else recognize this? If I had tried to charge him with assault, would the legal system have supported me? Were other passengers aware of the depth of this violation? Or did they accept his statement that he was "helping" me?
It's hard to speculate about what other people are thinking, or about what might have happened if
. But this uncomfortable encounter, with a man whose face I never even saw, did at least serve to remind me of the intense relationship I have with my wheelchair. When it's broken or unavailable to me, I feel limited in a way I never do when I'm in it. When it's working well, I move freely with its wheels and motors, and I interact with others from its comfortable seat.
I don't want other people to regard my wheelchair as public property, available to anyone who wants to use it for a foot rest, a topic of inappropriate inquiry, or a power trip.
But nor do I want them to view it as a barrier. That has also happened too many times. A few years ago, at the end of 10 days with a group of new friends and writers, our teacher was offering warm farewell hugs all around. She got to me, and hesitated. She wasn't sure what to do, how to navigate all the hardware in order to get close to me.
To her credit, she asked. I answered: "The left side works best. Come over here, and don't worry about leaning against the chair." It took some negotiating, but I got my hug.
Such qualms can be even more of a problem when pursuing romance. Potential partners who might have been attracted to me sometimes seemed put off by the physical presence of the wheelchair. Why? Maybe they saw it as an alien presence, a strange object that would always be in the way. Maybe they felt that it overwhelmed and diminished me, this big complicated contraption of electronics, wires, tubes, molded surfaces and customized supports. Maybe they had swallowed cultural stereotypes of wheelchairs as symbols of confinement, inability, immobility.
I know better. I know my wheelchair is part of me, and a part of which I am quite fond. It will change over the years – just like my other parts. It will even be replaced from time to time – just like all the cells in my body. There will be times when I fight it, times when I accept it. Sometimes we'll get along, and other times we'll be at odds.
Either way, the rest of the world better treat it right!
© 2010 Laura Hershey