By Mark E. Smith
A friend recently had me send him a replacement thumb screw to optimally secure a shroud piece on his power wheelchair. It was held on by a remaining screw on one side, but, absent the second screw, it sat crooked, ajar. “I just want to shut people up about it,” he said, noting the non-stop comments from his family and friends, constantly asking, Aren’t you ever going to fix that thing?
It really is amazing how bold people are toward commenting on our wheelchairs – and, when I say bold, what I really mean is unoriginal, idiotic, and even disability-phobic. After all, when was the last time a stranger made a creative, intelligent comment about your wheelchair? Chances are, rarely, if ever. …It’s always an unoriginal, idiotic comment like the greeter at Wal-Mart saying, Now, no burning rubber in here!; or your uncle, Harry, who says, We should soup that up with a gas engine!; or the nurse who asks, You’re not going to run me over with that, are you?; as you follow her down the hall at the doctor’s office.
My personal favorite – and, when I note favorite, I mean the most unoriginal, idiotic, never-ceasing comment of them all – is during every winter, when all I hear for six months is, Do you have snow chains for your wheelchair? And, undoubtedly, each person who asks me that wise-crack question thinks that he or she is the funniest, most original comedian out there – except that he or she really isn’t, merely stating the unoriginal and idiotic. Sixteen people made that comment to me on a single snowy day – I counted! – and I simply started replying, No, but I have duct tape… and I’m going to put it over the mouth of the next person who asks me that idiotic question! But, people kept asking, no less – there apparently isn’t enough duct tape to stifle the unoriginal and idiotic.
The other one that I love – to hate! – is when people ask me why I don’t clean my power wheelchair, when they know that it’s been raining or snowing for a week. I always want to reply, If you drive your car to work in the rain or snow, it gets dirty, just like when I drive my power wheelchair to work in the rain or snow, it gets dirty. What part of this equation don’t you comprehend, Einstein?
Most recently, I’ve inadvertently brought the unoriginal, idiotic comments toward my power wheelchair to whole new level, where they’re strikingly consistent, no matter the weather or occasion. I’ve had my “everyday” power wheelchair for about four years, and it’s gone through hell and back – driven thousands of miles, through countless thunderstorms and winter snow, caked in road salt for months at a time. And, so after such abuse, I understandably needed to replace my rear caster beam. In today’s limited funding climate, where many struggle to get basic mobility, it would have been unethical and immoral of me to simply order up a new caster beam for my wheelchair through my own company’s inventory system – there are too many people in need for me to be patching up my own wheelchair with new parts when such parts should go to others in need. Instead, I waited till our Service department had a used caster beam in reasonably good shape, and I had them recycle it onto my own wheelchair in need. The beam, as it turned out, was a different color than my frame; yet, that was of no concern to me – my goal was to have optimal mobility without impacting others with disabilities, so I was merely thrilled to have a good, used caster beam, regardless of color.
However, I didn’t consider the single, unoriginal, idiotic question that my mismatched-colored wheelchair would forever invite: How come your hood doesn’t match the fenders? As if I’m stuck in a never-ending episode of Seinfeld, every unoriginal, idiotic Neanderthal asks me that exact question, thinking that he or she is freakin’ hilarious: How come your hood doesn’t match the fenders? I suppose that I could take the time to explain the socially-responsible reason why my caster beam doesn’t match the rest of my wheelchair, but it would be like trying to explain the moral dilemmas of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to a three-year-old.
The larger issue is, however, why are people so quick to make unoriginal, unintelligent comments about our wheelchairs? After all, as those with disabilities, we don’t make unoriginal, idiotic, stereotypical comments to strangers about their appearances, nor do those who are able-bodied make such comments to each other. For example, a Wal-Mart greeter is allowed to say to a wheelchair user, Now, no burning rubber in the store!, but would be fired if he or she said to every overweight person, Now, no eating everything in the store! Both comments, at their core, are offensive; yet, culturally, one is allowed to call attention to a stranger’s wheelchair, but not allowed to make a wisecrack regarding, say, a stranger’s weight – what’s the basis for such a discrepancy of socially-acceptable behavior?
The answer resides in remaining disability phobia, where some people just don’t know how to act around those with disabilities, so they try making small talk centered around one’s wheelchair – and much of it ends up sounding really, really stupid, if not downright offensive to some.
I know a guy who works on the motor end of the power wheelchair industry, and based on my understanding of his background, prior to his entering the industry six years ago, he knew nothing of disability – and possibly still doesn’t. See, he knows me – and those around me – very well, but treats me very differently from others. When he sees everyone else, he greets them by name; however, whenever he encounters me, he simply says the same thing every time: Man, those motors are quiet!, referring only to my wheelchair. He’s said it to me hundreds of times, in every sort of setting. He could be talking to a group of people, and as I roll by, he’ll shout it at me – Man, those motors are quiet! It’s never, Hi, Mark, how are you?, just the same old, annoying comment: Man, those motors are quiet!
Why, though, does he insist on shouting that singular phrase at me year after year, rather than simply greeting me like everyone else? The first possibility is that he has a clinical fetish for wheelchair motors, and can’t control his “urges” when I roll by. Of course, a more likely possibility is that he lacks the capacity and comfort level to interact with those who have disabilities, and instinctively focuses on that which he’s comfortable with – motors. Therefore, saying, Hey, Mark, how are you?, to me, the guy with the disability, is so far outside of his comfort zone that the best that he can squeeze out is, Man, those motors are quiet!
Indeed, it’s a striving toward comfort level that ultimately motivates most of the unoriginal, idiotic comments that we receive toward our wheelchairs. People truly aren’t trying to be stupid and annoying, but actually gracious. Many without disability experience want to reach out to us as people, but aren’t sure how, so they stumble over themselves, using the obvious – our wheelchairs – as a conversational ice-breaker. And, that’s an effort on their parts that we should appreciate. Rather than avoiding those with disabilities as an unknown, others are taking the chance to start a dialogue with us – albeit, awkward, with unoriginal, idiotic comments – and it’s our role to then seize the opportunity, where we have a chance to engage with them in dialogue, where they then can see us as just people, after all.
The next time that someone makes an unoriginal, idiotic, comment about your wheelchair – Do you need a license to drive that thing? – try not to be annoyed or dismissive, but use it as an opportunity to open an immediate dialog, where the conversation quickly moves from your wheelchair to you as a complete person. You’ll likewise be amazed at how quickly you, too, will see the individual in front of you transform from an unoriginal moron to a sincere person, where everyone’s initial assumptions breakdown, and you just become people talking as people.