Debunking 8 myths about wheelchair users
There are a variety of common misconceptions surrounding the use of a wheelchair. Most people make assumptions about individuals who use wheelchairs including the reasons behind why they are using this mobility device, their character, their strength, and a range of other areas. These are topics that the general public is not in a position to speak on. Therefore, it is important to increasingly break the stigma surrounding wheelchair use and minimize the negative impact that these myths can have on a person who uses a wheelchair. Here are some of the most common (and most impactful) myths about wheelchair users:
You can’t get up at all
Most people think that if you’re in a wheelchair, you’re in there for good. While there may be some people who are completely dependent on their wheelchair to get around because their lower body is paralyzed, these individuals are in the minority. Some individuals use simpler forms of wheelchairs called transport chairs simply because they get winded and weak when they walk long distances in public. So, outside of their transport chair, they can get around their house perfectly fine on their own two legs.
Additionally, some individuals have good days and bad days relative to symptoms like pain, motion, fatigue, and strength. This is the case for diagnoses like Multiple Sclerosis. Individuals with such conditions may experience fluctuating symptoms based on diet, exercise, climate, medications, stress, and simply the natural course of the condition. This means that such individuals can use a walker or rollator to get around on some days, yet other days will leave them very much so in need of their wheelchair. Due to the variety of conditions that may lead someone to use a wheelchair, it is unfair and inaccurate to assume that wheelchair users are entirely immobile.
You have a long-standing illness
Some people who use wheelchairs do so due to short-term conditions. These can range from surgical repairs to ligaments in the knee or foot, hip or knee joint replacements, bone fractures that require increased stabilization, and more. Each of these minor, acute conditions (and more) can necessitate someone using a wheelchair for a period of time during their recovery process. It is true that some individuals who use wheelchairs have more chronic, lasting conditions. While there is a distinction between short-term and long-term health concerns, neither of these classifications rules out the possibility of progress, including increasing your strength, motion, and becoming more independent. For example, someone with a short-term condition like a joint replacement may need more assistance with basic activities than someone who is living with a chronic condition.
You need 100% assistance — for everything
Speaking of assistance, this is another very important point. Many people assume that the presence of a wheelchair (in any capacity) means the person using the mobility device cannot be left alone because they need complete and total assistance to do anything. A good rule of thumb for individuals in wheelchairs is to ensure that you do not immediately start doing something to help them without first asking them. Many people in wheelchairs live full and productive lives, needing minimal assistance for any daily activity. This is especially the case for individuals who have been using wheelchairs for years and years, as they have developed routines and adaptive strategies that allow them to be very independent. Most individuals who have used wheelchairs for a long time report they don’t even think about their wheelchair use, as it has become an extension of them.
You don’t like being around people who are not wheelchair users
Individuals who use wheelchairs seek to be part of any social, professional, or familial event where they can interact and engage with others as they normally would — wheelchair or not. They enjoy diverse experiences, rich conversations, jokes, games, and anything that other individuals typically enjoy. Some people believe that wheelchair users are consumed with envy or would be uncomfortable around individuals who do not use wheelchairs. As we mentioned earlier, most individuals who have used wheelchairs for a long time do not even think about it anymore. In fact, the majority of individuals in wheelchairs choose not to have their mobility status viewed as a large or notable part of their identity. This allows wheelchair users to be who they are and to be seen for their personality, talents, skills, friendships, and more.
Your life is totally different from that of someone who doesn’t use a wheelchair
This myth has undertones in many of the other myths we have already discussed. Many of these misconceptions are based on the idea that other individuals view people in wheelchairs as being completely different from them. This could not be farther from the truth, as individuals who are in wheelchairs will have the same need to start each morning with waking up, brushing their teeth, combing their hair, and eating some breakfast before beginning the day’s activities. Depending on their upper body function, some individuals in wheelchairs may do these things differently than others. However, the essentials are the same. This is exactly how individuals in wheelchairs strive to be seen by others: much the same as you in many ways.
You cannot speak for yourself
This may not be the case for every individual in a wheelchair, but this often happens to individuals who have any sort of caregiver or “carer” who accompanies them throughout the day. Individuals who you interact with may choose to speak to your caregiver about you or ask your caregiver questions about you while you are sitting directly in front of them. This is not only rude, but completely unnecessary, as the vast majority of wheelchair users can speak for themselves perfectly fine. In many cases, they can give more accurate information regarding questions about them than their caregiver can. Be sure to focus your responses and attention on the individual in the wheelchair to engage in an inclusive conversation.
You sit at home all day doing nothing
As we’ve shown you throughout many of these responses, individuals in wheelchairs often do not live lives that are all that different than yours and mine. This means they likely have a schedule that consists of work, school, or volunteer activities, hobbies, doctor’s appointments, trips to the hairdresser or barber, involvement in spiritual or religious groups, and social events such as community gatherings, trips to the theater, and parties. Some individuals in wheelchairs may get there or prepare for these events a little differently than you might, but they are still engaging in a full, productive life just like yourself.
You should be treated differently
All of these myths pave the way for perhaps the most important one of all: that people in a wheelchair need some sort of special treatment. The only thing that people in wheelchairs truly need is accessible environments (like ramps and widened doorways) along with support that matches their skills (meaning caregivers who allow them to remain as independent as they are able to be on any given day). These are the keys to happiness while living in a wheelchair. Individuals who rely on a wheelchair to get around do not need someone to do everything for them, nor do they need special assistance or people who will patronize them. They deserve the same treatment of kindness, respect, and equality as everyone else does.