Friday, July 7, 2017

This Is What Happens When You "See the Person, Not the Wheelchair"

Any wheelchair user will be able to tell you stories of well meaning able people (or, I suppose, non wheelchair using disabled people) who say "I don't see the wheelchair, I just see the person.", usually while patting themselves on the back for being such good friends to the crippled person.  This is bolstered by overly cheery campaigns that urge you to "see the person, not the disability", or "see the ability, not the disability!"

While it's always vaguely heartening to know that some people are interested in getting to know a person beyond their durable medical equipment, this type of thinking leads to a dangerous myth, the myth that wheelchairs are somehow optional accessories, that they're not really part of a person, and that going without them is a simple matter of will and plucky perseverance.  While these thoughts may not be explicitly verbalized, we can see the effects of them all too well in our current political landscape.

The Senate is trying to pass a bill that, among other things, would decimate Medicaid by cutting billions of dollars from the program over the next several years.  States who cannot cover the remainder on their own or through a set amount of money granted to them from the federal government will have to choose between dropping people from coverage or reducing the services it covers.  Currently, ONLY Medicaid covers home and community based services (personal care attendants) that allow many disabled people to get out of bed, get dressed, go to the bathroom, and generally live their lives.  Medicaid also pays for wheelchairs and other mobility equipment.  I've been active with ADAPT in the last few months, protesting against this bill that will literally kill disabled people when they lose services that allow them to live and be free in the community.

Tonight, ADAPT protesters in Ohio were flipped out of their wheelchairs and dragged out of the building, with their wheelchairs on the other side of doors locked by police.  Something similar happened last month in DC as we occupied Senator McConnell's office and the hallway outside.  (I say "we" because I was there.).  They were still people, sure, but they couldn't go anywhere without their wheelchairs.

When you "don't see the wheelchair", when you ignore the vital role that wheelchairs play in the lives of people who need them, you are contributing to a culture that literally rips our wheelchairs out from under us, that slashes funding to the programs that allow us to have wheelchairs in the first place and then wonders why we didn't try harder to get a job.  Without my wheelchair, I wouldn't be able to work, at least not without exhausting myself and seriously endangering my productivity.  My wheelchair has given me the confidence and the ability to live on my own, four hours away from my parents, and work a full time job.  And last time I tried, private insurance wouldn't cover a wheelchair for me.  Medicaid may be my only hope in the future, as my disabilities change and I need a wheelchair that provides more support than my scooter does now.

This is what the rhetoric of "don't see the wheelchair" does.  It treats wheelchairs as an inconvenience to be moved out of the way in favor of the person.  Words are just words, but when words lead to actions like this, words are dangerous.

So take a good, hard look.  See the wheelchair.  More than that, see the person, wheelchair and all.  Our lives may depend on it.

A picture of me with Senator Tom Harkin last winter in front of the Capitol building.  I'm sitting in my scooter.


Siobhan (Chronically Siobhan) said...

Spot on! "I don't see the wheelchair" is just another form of disability erasure.

kathy kulesza said...

When you don't notice the wheelchair you can't accommodate the wheelchair.

Margot said...

Great pic Cara! I tried to explain the same thing to a sociologist who showed me one of those "see the person" campaigns.

Robbie Roppolo said...


Jesus Arroyo said...

"I don't even see you as disabled." Ok. But I am. It's not all I am, but it's a part, a big part. Acknowledge it.
Good entry :)

Unknown said...

Excellent points Cara! Wheelchairs should be included if they use one.