Wow. The wheelchair haters are really coming out in full force lately.
First, there was Kanye. At a concert in Melbourne, he demanded that all his fans stand up as he was about to start one of his songs. Apparently, he stopped the entire concert to single out one person who wasn’t standing — because he was in a wheelchair. Only after someone waved his prosthetic leg in the air and the entire venue knew that this guy was disabled did Kanye continue with the concert. Unbelievable.
(And, okay, I guess that’s not wheelchair hating, per se, but it’s certainly insensitive and totally objectifying: “HEY EVERYBODY — CHECK OUT CRIPPLED McNOLEGS OVER HERE! He’s in a wheelchair! He’s literally the only person not standing! He can’t use his legs like KANYE!! I AM A GODDDDDD!!!!”)
Barely a week later, another high-profile celebrity made an insensitive, ableist comment. Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy fame, tweeted that there’s “nothing sadder than a hot person in a wheelchair.” And, um, I can certainly think of a few. What about a person who’s home-bound because he needs a wheelchair and doesn’t have one? Or how about a self-proclaimed genius who’s too blind to see past conventional standards of beauty, whining on twitter about how a life-changing mode of mobility shrinks his boner? Because that is pretty sad.
Ken and Kanye’s wheelchair remarks were markedly different, in two completely separate contexts, but they both solidified what our culture, in some ways, has always said: People in wheelchairs are Other. Less desirable. Deserving, somehow, to be lumped together, singled out, pointed at, objectified, and ridiculed. (And by the way, it’s not rude to laugh at someone’s disability — it’s hilarious. It’s edgy.)
The consensus in our culture, I guess, is that wheelchairs are sad and people in wheelchairs should be pitied. Or singled out. Or mocked. Or all three. Which makes no sense to me now.
But at a time it did.
Before I had a kid with spina bifida, I didn’t give much thought to wheelchairs at all. But I know for a fact that I did feel bad for people who were resigned to them. Man, I thought, what a pain in the ass it would be to have to use a wheelchair. You’d always be at butt-level with everybody else. You’d have to depend on that chair for everything, and what a pain it would be to transfer over to the toilet or into bed. Ugh. I’m so glad that isn’t me.
I didn’t need a wheelchair. But my child probably will. And when he was born, it changed everything I thought I knew about disability.
He has to use a nasal cannula and a feeding tube in the NICU? Thank God. Now his body can grow and heal without having to use all his energy for eating or breathing.
He has to have a shunt? Thank you, Jesus! A hundred years ago, and even today in some poorer countries, hydrocephalus is a death sentence. But we get a reprieve — just a thin, plastic tube that reroutes his cerebral-spinal fluid to another part of his body, and the hydro is virtually not a problem at all.
We have to catheterize him? AWESOME. Without catheters, Henry’s kidneys and bladders could get seriously messed up or infected.
He might have to use a wheelchair someday? Simply fantastic. Because this little guy might need one. Since his legs and feet don’t work like yours and mine, he’ll need special assistance to get him where he needs to go: On the bus for Kindergarten, out of the house for park and zoo trips, the possibilities are endless. With a wheelchair, we won’t have to worry about him being excluded from things because his legs work differently. He won’t have to be left out or homebound. Wheelchairs are freedom! Wheelchairs are opportunity!
And quite frankly, Ken Jennings, wheelchairs aren’t “sad.” They’re awesome.