Trading Spaces

In Columns, Life With Laura by Laura Stinson

“You’re really good at that.” “You’re so lucky.” “I bet that’s fun.” “I wish I had one of those.”

If I was being politically correct, I would chalk it up to ignorance. Since I’m being honest, I’m going to chalk it up to just plain stupidity.

If you’re in a wheelchair, I’m willing to bet you’ve heard any number of variations on the above comments plus dozens of others. I have never really understood what people see when they see me. Some kind of anomaly because I can maneuver my chair in tight situations? A woman blessed with wheels to make it easier to move from place to place? What?

The problem is, what they “see” is not what I truly am. “Of course I’m good at driving my chair. I’ve only been doing it for 20 years. “No, lucky is being able to move through a world without obstacles.” “No, it’s not especially fun, seeing as how it’s not a plaything you can pick up at Toys R Us.” “Hey, you can have mine. But, just be sure you also take the endless doctor’s appointments, painful operations, and idiotic comments just like this one along with it.”

Ah, the mental retorts I have stored that, someday, I would long to spout like a gumball machine. And, yet, I can’t, because I know what those people don’t: They are incredibly stupid and insensitive; they can’t help it.

What possesses individuals to say these things? Would you go up to an obviously obese person and say something like, “Hey, I bet you like to eat.” I suppose one could chalk it up to the fact that most ABs have never encountered a person in a wheelchair, much less had the opportunity to converse with one. Lack of opportunity is no excuse. There are certain social mores that one does not mess with.

And, it’s not just people who encounter me and have to have a conversation with me. It’s total strangers. All through public school, which required the dreaded mile run, students I had never even seen, let alone met would approach and tell me how lucky I was because I couldn’t participate. I let them know rather quickly that I would give up “all this” for one shot at that mile run.

On my college campus, one student passed me on my way to class and I heard her murmur, “I wish I had one of those.” If I wasn’t about to be late, I might have turned around and reminded her that if I reach stairs at the end of my chosen pathway, I have to start all over again and find a different route. I also wanted to tell her that I only make it look easy and it’s only because I have been using a manual chair since I was five. I swear, if every person I had ever encountered actually spent a day living the way I do, they would cry “Uncle!” after the first hour.

A couple of years later, another fellow student had the gall to say in passing, “It must be fun to roll down hills.” Right, I forgot. I’m doing this all for pleasure.

Here’s the problem as I see it. People who are not disabled see being in a wheelchair as a game. They can sit in a wheelchair for a while, play around, and get up and on with their lives, thinking it’s a lot of fun. I, unfortunately, can’t call it quits when I get tired of sitting. I can’t get up, I can only get on with my life.

That’s why I am a strong advocate for programs that allow people to really know what it is like to be disabled—at least, as close as possible without truly disabling them. My Girl Scout troop did this; I have no idea if troops still do this, but I desperately hope so.

Children are the only ones that can really be influenced to think differently. But, this methodology is also important as a way to teach adults to view the world a little different. Life is a lot different from waist-level.

If you want to comment on this topic you can send an email to or join the Online Forum where discussions take place everyday.