Have you ever heard of the term Ambulatory Wheelchair User?
I’m going to hazard a guess that unless you’re a part of the disabled community, or close to it, it’s unlikely you have.
I hadn’t until a few years ago, despite being one for several years before that.
An Ambulatory Wheelchair User is a wheelchair user who is also able to walk in some circumstances; however long or short that distance is, or how often they’re able to.
Not that ground-breaking, right!? But if you’ve ever stood up from a wheelchair in public, or walked unaided after being seen using one, you’ll realise it definitely is to a lot of people!
LACK OF REPRESENTATION
If you think a bit about when we see wheelchair users in the media and on television, you’ll realise how tiny that subset is. When did you last see an invisibly disabled, ambulatory wheelchair user as a character in a tv program without the narrative implying they’re faking their disability?
The lack of representation has very real consequences, as has been shown when Kate Stanforth, an incredible Disabled Dancer and Model, received so much backlash and hate after being one of the first ambulatory wheelchair users featured in a major advertising campaign.
Every program or joke that depicts a disabled person as ‘faking it’ if they don’t need to use a visible aid 100% of the time, or aren’t at the most severe end of the spectrum of that condition, sets us back years.
And each time the horrible phrase ‘wheelchair-bound’ is dropped into an article, it sends out the message they’re a worst-case scenario, something to be feared or pitied, and a final straw, instead of a useful, freedom-giving, versatile tool.
The spectrum of disability is something rarely spoken about. People with exactly the same condition can be affected completely differently. Many are invisible. And lots of, if not most, conditions can fluctuate from day to day or even hour to hour. Yet many people seem to have a one-size-fits-all perception of what each condition and disability looks like.
Just as conditions can fluctuate, so does the need and reason to use a mobility or daily living aid, and what type is needed (if any- many disabled people don’t use any aids).
An analogy I used when chatting to my parents about this last week, which then, through the spooky powers of the internet, I saw a similar one on a social media post days later (how does that happen!?), was to do with glasses.
I thought others might find it interesting too, so here’s the shortened version of our long-winded, 9pm conversation…
WHEELCHAIRS & GLASSES
People need glasses for a variety of different reasons, right? Some need them at different strengths to others, some only need them for reading, some only while driving, and some need them for everything. But nobody would ever doubt someone’s need for them if they didn’t need them all the time, or assume everyone needs the same kind for the same reason.
Just like a wheelchair, glasses are a tool to help those who need them, in whatever capacity they’re needed.
People who need glasses for reading can often still read without them, but it’s difficult, requires a lot of concentration and manoeuvring to get the words at the right distance away to make them legible, and is a strain on their eyes. Some may only be able to read a bold word on a road sign, while some may be able to haphazardly make out the small text in a book. Nobody would ever tell either of these people they don’t need to wear glasses because they can already read a bit.
So, why are wheelchairs, or any other aid, seen as any different?
Like glasses, they’re used for a massive variety of different reasons, too many to list here. They can make certain tasks and life easier for that person. Help minimise extra pain, fatigue, injuries or lots of other things. And help give people access to activities they’d otherwise have to miss out on because either they couldn’t do it at all, or doing it would cause negative consequences to them.
They can be preventatives as well as necessities.
Just as when my dad uses his glasses for reading, he prevents getting headaches and eye strain from having to try so hard to focus on the words, some of the reasons I use my powered wheelchair are to prevent daily symptoms drastically increasing and save energy for the task at hand instead of using it all on the act of walking a short distance.
So, next time you see someone stand from their wheelchair, or do something physically active without it, like dancing or running, and you get the urge to gasp or scrutinise them (thanks to the delightful Little Britain era…), remind yourself- Wheelchairs Are Like Glasses, and so are any other aids.
*They’re not magic though. It’s easy to think that if everyone with energy-limiting conditions or mobility issues had access to a suitable wheelchair they’d be fine and dandy and ready to take on the world… but you still have to be well enough and have a certain level of functioning to use one. And using one still costs people energy, extra fatigue and pain, and many other symptoms, just usually less than not using one would. (Plus the world isn’t very accessible, but that’s another conversation!)