Respect Me and My Wheelchair

by GEM Magazine / Sep 24, 2015 / Comments

After a typical week in my life, I feel as though have I only participated in half of the number of conversations I was present for.

People I don’t know well, and who I believe are trying to comfort me because I am disabled, often touch me when we talk.

Whether it’s a shoulder rub or a pat on the back, it makes me uncomfortable, and frankly, I find it odd.

Needless to say, the unwanted physical touch does not give me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside.

Imagine this; you bump into an acquaintance and they unexpectedly rub your shoulder or back throughout the conversation.

How would this make you feel?

Perhaps the words ‘excuse me,’ would come out of your mouth. Perhaps you would raise your eyebrows, or you might even push them away.

People do this to me all the time. And I know this issue isn't restricted to being in a wheelchair. Many people feel uncomfortable by

I am not a genie in a bottle; I will not be able to grant you a wish if you rub me.

And if you are trying to express ease and warmth, even sympathy, because I am in a wheelchair, well my response is plain and simple: Just don’t.

Think about it this way; If you were being interviewed for a job, would you rub the interviewer’s shoulder? No.

According to social convention, people are entitled to personal space during conversation.

Howevery, my experience suggests that this code does not apply in my daily interactions.

And the unwanted physical contact does not stop at my shoulders. I have conversed with people who lean on my chair, or put their foot on my wheel.

Those who do this, generally mean well.

It has been a reality throughout my life.

Although the conversations I engage in could do with less physical contact, and more verbal understanding.

Past discussions have become one-sided as the other person struggles to understand what I am saying due to my disability. But they almost never ask me to repeat myself.

I already know that my speaking voice isn't clear. I’ve had it all my life. But a simple ‘pardon me?’ or ‘what did you say?’ would be welcomed.

Usually, when I've attempted to articulate a sentence, the response I typically receive is, ‘oh, yeah.’

They prefer to be polite.

In some cases, people have hung up the phone, rather than asking me to try again. I wish people would ask, instead of dismiss or ignore because it makes them feel uncomfortable.

I dislike the fact that people still speak to disabled individuals differently. It’s wrong.

Conversations are like gardens. With space and time, they can grow.

In the future, I'd like everyone to think about wheelchairs in the following way;

Just as your legs are a physical part of you, my wheelchair is a physical part of me.

I'd also like my personal space to be respected, and my voice to be heard, despite any miscommunication that may arise.

After all, I am the same as you. I am an equal.

By Alex Lytwyn.

Alex has cerebral palsy and uses a power wheelchair, but he has not felt limited by his disability. Lytwyn has written two books, is a senior writer for CBC Manitoba, and a blogger for the Rick Hansen Foundation.

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