Pondering Wheelchair Prestige

Name almost any topic – politics, sports, religion, education, cars, pets – and people argue over it, talkin’ trash, as the hip kids say, about whose perspective is more valid.

But, who would think that such heated discussions would occur regarding wheelchairs? After all, the fact is, few items in mainstream culture are as seemingly sterile, void of any prestige to the masses, as a wheelchair, where able-bodied folks rarely note the exact model of wheelchair that you use, and none would ever challenge your personal taste in wheelchairs, as in, “Dude, what’s up with that hooptie – get a better chair, bro!”

Yet, people in the wheelchair community sometimes do just that – that is, challenge others on the validity of the types of wheelchairs that they use, or mock their brand loyalty, talking smack. And, such contention over wheelchairs is ridiculous, if not harmful to disability culture at large.

On Internet message boards, you’ll occasionally see claims where one person says that their wheelchair will out perform others, and the bantering gets going. And, in real life, you’ll hear users, providers, and reps dishing innuendos and spite toward other wheelchairs and brands to make their personal product preferences seem more valid. “Why’d you pick that chair – don’t you know that it’s just going to break?” is along the lines we sometimes hear.

But, among the worst I’ve encountered lately was at an event where I heard one user ask another user, “What, did you steal that piece of crap wheelchair from a nursing home?” diminishing the user’s lower-end wheelchair. As funny as that line seems, the guy who served it was serious and biting with its delivery, talking down to the other user, hassling him because he didn’t have the latest-greatest gig on wheels.

At some point there has to be a reality check that a wheelchair is ultimately a tool of necessity, not an item of bravado – that is, the one with the biggest, baddest wheelchair doesn’t win an award in the official I Can’t Walk Club.

What’s more, in the world at large, a particular type of wheelchair doesn’t socially distinguish one wheelchair user from another, either. Most folks in the mainstream aren’t judging us based on the brand and model of wheelchair we have – they don’t even know what makes one wheelchair different from the next. In fact, ask a guy in line at Walmart if he knows what a Quickie is, and he’ll give you an answer that will surely make his wife next to him blush, but it won’t have anything to do with wheelchairs!

Sure, a “cool looking” wheelchair will get comments from some – and that’s a great, inclusive sentiment. Yet, in whole, you have a disability, I have a disability, and others in the mainstream simply don’t see our actual wheelchairs as a distinguishing charachteristic among us. Put simply, those in the mainstream acknowledge that we use wheelchairs, but beyond occasionally noticing eye catching paint or upholstery, they make no distinctions between one wheelchair model and the next – the exact model of wheelchair we use is of virtually no significance to them.

But, some in our community do use their wheel chairs as bravado, a prestige symbol that they believe differentiates them from other wheelchair users. Why is that?

Well, we live in a materialistic society, where we often believe that what we have is what we represent, all of which supposedly defines who we are – from the cars we drive, to the clothes we wear, to the homes we live in. And, wheelchair users aren’t exempt from this cultural force, with some putting an overtly materialistic emphasis on their wheelchairs. And, within reason, that’s a healthy, empowered outlook, where one is proud of one’s wheelchair, just like pride in one’s other posessions.

Yet, the problem comes in when some with disabilities take “wheelchair prestige” too far, viewing one’s wheelchair as a true status symbol, believing that the quality of one’s wheelchair socially elevates them above others. I suspect that this outlook stems not from disability experience, but from personal values, where such individuals place an oversignifigance on all of their belongings, not just their wheelchairs – that is, you’ll hear them bragging about everything they own, not just their wheelchairs.

However, is it really rational to think that a cool wheelchair makes one person somehow better than others?

Of course not. Again, wheelchair use isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity, and anyone who skews it into a perceived status competition is missing the point entirely – of wheelchairs and life. We should ebrace our wheelchairs as a realistic part of our lives, and appreciate them for the liberation that they provide. But, we shouldn’t make them divisive objects of materialism between us – no one is better than another based on the type of wheelchair used. To the contrary, relying on wheelchairs for mobility should be a common experience that brings us together with shared understanding and camaraderie.

Esteem in one’s wheelchair is a positive force. Like crisp clothes, when we like what we see in the mirror, we feel better about ourselves – and, a cool wheelchair can make us feel better about ourselves, as it’s such an intimate extension of one’s body. But, let’s not be fooled into thinking that any caliber of wheelchair can truly define class distinctions among us – we’re all in the wheelchair world together. In this way, when we see other wheelchair users, we shouldn’t judge them by their wheelchairs’ characteristics, but by their true characters, where wheelchairs don’t distinguish us, but unite us.


Author: Mark E. Smith

The literary side of the WheelchairJunkie

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