Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

I Use A Wheelchair. Does That Make Me Wheelchair-Bound?

Every time I do a disability awareness presentation, we devote some time to "using the right words". I’m far from being Politically Correct (PC) for the sake of being PC, but the fact remains, language has undeniable power. One expression that is used often enough which I wish faded out of people’s consciousness is "wheelchair bound".

What I say at these awareness presentations is:

"I’m not wheelchair bound; I’m not tied to my wheelchair. If I were, I’d hope it would be in a kinky context!"

Then I wait a bit, see the reaction. Some people genuinely find it funny. Others feel they have to laugh but clearly don’t get it. Others yet are just too uncomfortable to react in any way. But it makes everyone consider the statement.

I then explain: I’m not wheelchair bound. I’m not tied to the wheelchair. To use the term "wheelchair bound" implies *limitations*. When in fact, the wheelchair is a tool of freedom. It’s without that wheelchair that I am seriously limited.

So each time I am told I am wheelchair bound, the implied message I get is "you’re in a wheelchair, you’re limited". Yeah, I’m in a wheelchair, it gives me wings!

I know that most people don’t even think about that. And that’s fine. If you don’t have a disability, or don’t know someone who has a disability, chances are you haven’t had an opportunity to think about this stuff. Now’s your chance!

8 thoughts on “I Use A Wheelchair. Does That Make Me Wheelchair-Bound?

  1. A wheelchair is a mobility device. Mobility by it’s nature being a word with a positive connotation. So in essence the prase “wheelchair bound” is an oxy-moron. Wheelchairs (and other assistive devices) give people with disabilities the freedom of mobility, as which they may *only* be “bound” withOUT a wheelchair!

  2. There are plenty of car-bound people. Can’t even go 100 yards without the car. These people are driving out of choice – they could walk if they could get their brains out of lazy-mode. A wheelchair-user going from A to B only has the choice of go (use chair) or don’t go (don’t use chair). I think that those car users are the ones in real bondage because they can’t even *see* the choice. (Hope that makes sense – *I* know what I mean!)

  3. Hi Nicholas,

    Interesting article. So, what is the preferred language?

    “Monica is not wheelchair bound, Monica uses a wheelchair”

    When discussing accessibility, is saying “Monica will have a hard time getting to the theater because she is in a wheelchair,” bad, because it blames Monica for the lack of accommodations?

    Is it better to say, “Monica will have a hard time because the theater does not accommodate wheelchairs” because this puts the onus for the lack of access on the theater?

    I hope you will pardon my ignorance. What are you thoughts on this?

  4. Hey Tomasz, thanks for commenting :)

    Each person tends to have their own preference. But in the example you give, I would tend to say “Monica is going to be in trouble because the theater isn’t accessible”.

    I don’t think you’re ignorant, you pointed out the reason right there: putting the onus on the barrier rather than the person facing the barrier.

  5. Thanks for a beautiful commentary and thought-provoking responses.

    What to respond or not to repond to people who have shockingly bad manners has been one of my primary struggles since being disabled by a speeding commercial truck driver who ran a light 12 years ago (and yes, I was in a car but it did not survive the collision). I have found that the type of humor I was able to previouly employ as an athlete and coach is not “accepted” when it comes from people with disabilities. One day I responded to a stranger who kept pestering me that what was “wrong” with me was apparently that I attracted rude stranger who felt they could ask me impertinent questions. However, it seems that people who actually ask “What’s wrong with you?” or “Why can’t you climb stairs?” are generally the type who think they are “insulted” if a disabled person doesn’t accommodate their rudeness.

    My friends who have been disabled their entire lives are much more tolerant of these types of intrusions, but often they tell me it’s just because they don’t intend for people to behave better.

    I’ve learned from some of them to say things in a way to help bridge the gap and say something that might be enlightening for those who might be willing to see things from a different perspective, but I don’t think that I will ever have their tolerance for the ones who are merely curious and don’t seem to think disabled people are human enough to require normal common courtesy.

    I just cannot think how someone would think it’s okay to comment to a stranger about their personal appearance, whether it has to do with a disability or anything else. I can’t understand this perspective, and still wish that I had some better way to respond.

    I appreciate this blog because it helps me to create a better response system.

  6. Dear Rachel,
    I feel the same about rude and curious people. Will have to memorise “What’s wrong/My deal is that I attract rude people who believe they can ask me impertinent questions.” I love that answer and surely will have a chance to utilise it in near future.
    Interesting observation that people with disabilities since birth have much less tendency to ward the stupid comments off.
    Thanks, Nic, for your thought-provoking articles. I am with you: I am not bound by my wheelchair, I am freed by it!

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