Years ago I was introduced to a wheelchair support group in my hometown by a close friend. I was apprehensive at first because the thought of being in a room full of other disabled people didn’t sit well with me. You see, disabled people go through a phase in their recovery where they reject, deny and disassociate with anything that forces them to confront their disability and look at it in the eye. After much persuasion, I went in for my first meeting and was surprised at how refreshing and powerful it was to link up with my tribe. Finding people who looked like me and spoke of the exact struggles I faced was super helpful and validating. It was through that experience that I probably started getting out of my shell and realizing that there were others like me.
We grew tight pretty fast with the other members who were all older than me. Age didn’t matter much because when a group of people have been scarred and tested by a common thing, all walls are broken and playing fields levelled. We had the most eye-opening conversations about dealing with disability and navigating through a society that tends to like looking at us but very rarely sees us.
Through these conversations, the topic of toning down our disabilities for the comfort of able-bodied people came up and being a newbie at the time, I was curious to understand what that entailed and why it was something we needed to talk about. Someone stated that most of society is designed to only accept you as long as your disability doesn’t make them uncomfortable. If you are deemed a little “cringy” you will be tossed aside and have your chair removed from the table.
There’s a reason people with severe cerebral palsy and autism prefer not to speak in public spaces because most people will often not have the patience and empathy to get through their slow speech. They will grow impatient and speak over them or ignore them altogether. By choosing to quiet their voices and muting their thoughts, disabled people essentially tone down who they are so that they can ‘fit in’ with more ease.
As I was preparing to write this post, I asked myself if there have been instances where I have consciously or unconsciously felt like I had to tone down my disability so that I would be accepted. This proved to be a complex question that I couldn’t answer myself so I asked those close to me if I have at any point given out that vibe. Well…
I apparently don’t like going out in my motorized wheelchair. I like to tell myself that I prefer to leave it behind because it is less practical, but after some deep reflection, I am forced to admit that there might be other motives. My power wheelchair, though really cool and freeing, there has always been a part of me that thought people look at me in it and instantly think I am more disabled than I actually am. I think disabled people who use power wheelchairs are regarded as more disabled and less capable than our peers who use manual wheelchairs.
I wanted to whether this was an actual thing that other people wrestle with or if it was only in my mind so I went on Google and did some research. My findings were interesting because other people do this as well. Even though there isn’t an actual study that supports these claims, people in the disabled community agree that society is more accepting of people who are in manual wheelchairs. Power wheelchair users attract attention because of their chairs and also some pity.
Are you a true ally to the disabled community or does your support only go as far as your comfort levels? Would you still accept me if I was nonverbal and drooling over your carpet? Is it too much to ask for acceptance as we are, even the parts of ourselves that are not as “inspirational”? Ask yourself this, if you had a party at your place, would you go through the trouble of installing a makeshift ramp at your home for a disabled friend or would it be easier to fail to mention the party to them entirely because inviting them would inconvenience you. I ask this because it has happened to me on many occasions.
From Stairs To Ramps: 8 Years After The Accident, The Struggle To Stay Alive