The terms “confined to a wheelchair” and “wheelchair bound” are judgements by people without disabilities about how it would be to live life in a wheelchair. For those who do not rely on wheelchairs, they may see life in a wheelchair as limiting, confining and restricting. For those who rely on wheelchairs, we know that the opposite is true; wheelchairs offer mobility, freedom, and independence. Without a wheelchair I would have been stuck at home for an entire decade. With my wheelchair I was able to start a non-profit organization, volunteer in the community, be active in sports, have a great social life, and be independent. At no point, in my ten years of using a wheelchair, did I ever feel confined or bound. I felt free, independent, and able to participate as a productive member in our society thanks to my wheelchair.
For many, their only access to information about people with disabilities is through the media. Unfortunately, the media often reinforces the idea that people who use wheelchairs are confined or limited, because the stories they tell are negative or place the person in a wheelchair in a victim role. People watch these stories, and if they do not know someone who uses a wheelchair, they believe that they correctly reflect life with a wheelchair. The message they receive is that a person in a wheelchair is confined, bound or unable. The truth is that people who rely on mobility aids have the same goals, hopes and plans for their lives as those who have mobility unaided by a wheelchair. Confinement is not a true reflection of a wheelchair, even though it is the prevalent image in the media. In my work, as Executive Director of Citizens for Accessible Neighbourhoods, I have met many people in wheelchairs who live full, active, productive lives, and that is in large part thanks to the mobility and freedom that their wheelchair affords them. It is true that there are a lot of accessibility issues that create barriers for people who use wheelchairs, but the barriers stem from the inaccessibility of communities that aren’t inclusive, not the wheelchair itself.
For those convinced that wheelchairs bind us, or confine us, I ask you to look up Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham, an extreme athlete who performs tricks adapted from skateboarding and BMX in his wheelchair. Does he seem restricted by his wheelchair? Or look up Abel Rose, referred to as “Fearless”. Abel has Spina Bifida and uses a wheelchair. He began to wheel himself at nine months, and by eighteen months he became the youngest kid to be involved with WCMX, a company that makes wheelchairs strong enough to take the abuse of a skateboard park.
(Check out his Aaron’s double flip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0lLafJSwvA)
Wheelchairs offer access to the world. One of the fastest rising demographics in tourism is people with disabilities. Entire tours are being created for people with wheelchairs. People who use wheelchairs have travelled around the world, and their wheelchairs are key to their ability to do so.
People who use wheelchairs are also active in sports. If there is a sport, it has been adapted to be done by people with disabilities. Take a look at the B.C. Adaptive Sport and Recreation Database on Citizens for Accessible Neighbourhoods’ website (http://www.canbc.org/adaptive_sports.htm). The database currently lists over 60 types of adaptive sports in over 70 communities across B.C. One example of an adapted sport is Power Football (Power Soccer to us North Americans); it was created in France in the early 1970s for people who use power wheelchairs, and brought to Canada in the early 1980s. In 2007 the first World Cup was played in Tokyo, Japan. In 2011 our local organization, SportAbilitiy, and Powerchair Football Canada, sent their very first National PowerChair Football team to the FIFPA World Cup in Paris, France. For these athletes their wheelchairs are key to sport, competition and travel.
I want to take a step back for a moment, and acknowledge that people like Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham, Abel Rose and our National PowerChair Football team are extreme examples. I want to acknowledge that they are not indicative of every person who relies on a wheelchair. I want to make sure people don’t hold every person in a wheelchair to these standards. I used these three examples, these three extremes, to, hopefully, once and for all, knock the thought out of people’s heads that wheelchairs are confining, limiting and/or restricting. I did this to make a point, in an extreme way, to ensure it was a lesson not just read, but learned and remembered. But I also want to make the point that for many people, myself included, a wheelchair offers freedom in smaller, more everyday ways, that are just as important. I was able to take transit, go grocery shopping, go to movies with friends, walk the Vancouver Seawall, and volunteer in my community. I didn’t do flips or compete in Paris, but I did get out of my house, I did have a full life, and I did have mobility and freedom thanks to my wheelchair.
For some their wheelchair can offer the chance to get out of bed and transfer to another room in their house, and that in itself is freedom from being confined. For others, their wheelchair offers them the ability to seek out new adventures, whether it be visiting a local park or visiting the Eiffel Tower. Wheelchairs are the tools which enable people with mobility issues to go about their daily lives, whatever that entails. Wheelchairs are tools for mobility, and therefore the terminology of “wheelchair bound” or “confined to a wheelchair” should be eliminated. A person uses their wheelchair, they rely on their wheelchair, they are not confined or restricted by their wheelchair. Please help us change the misperception that wheelchairs are confining. Please strike these terms from popular usage, and when the chance arises, let others know why they, too, should see a wheelchair from the perspective of the millions of people who use them, as tools for independence, freedom, and mobility.