BBC News – Paralympics 2012: How do people view the wheelchair?

BBC News – Paralympics 2012: How do people view the wheelchair?.

I have been meaning to comment on this excellent video for some time now. In the audio John Hockenberry asks a couple of pertinent questions which, while he provides sparking answers, also provide room for debate. The first is this:

Those exact same elements that might put you off are transformed in the Paralympics. Why? 

It is question of identity,  centered around how we see the “other”, those who are different from our perceptions of normal. Also, where we see the person may alter the image, so not just the body, but also the environment. As he says, it is a case of allowing one image, that which our subconscious has been trained by the media, our nurture, and stereotypes to be seen as tragic, we allow to become triumph. This also explains our potential reaction to any of the pictures in the photographic article The 33 most inspiring photos of the Paralympics. (I have also offered my own comment on the images in my previous blog post.)

This would be the case not only for the person or people looking on, but also for the disabled person themselves. How does their disability alter their view of themselves. I can only speak for myself in this. For me, this such a huge question.; From tragedy to triumph. I have partly answered the question before, in explaining how difficult it ws to come to terms with the consequences of major surgery, but this question also applies to how I view myself as a person with cerebral palsy and as an electric wheelchair user. As I explained in the same article, being told I use a wheelchair full-time, for me, really was a tragedy and one I am coming to terms with. In terms of how it affect my self-image, I feel it makes me look somehow vulnerable, in some ways more disabled than I am, as I am able to mobilise a bit.  Both how I view myself, and how others view me depends on which aid I am using, amongst other things. If I use my electric wheelchair, and my environment allows me to use that chair unaided, I have a sense of freedom I do not have at any other time, as I can decide where I want to go, when, and for how long. Put me in my self-propelled wheelchair however, and it’s a different story. Then, I do not have the same freedom. Recently, mu manual chair was being fixed, and I’d gone to a local gym in a taxi with my Zimmer frame, and a carer. After the usual pleasantries, somehow I blurted out how I wouldn’t be so fine after my swim, having had the exertion of walking from the house to the taxi, the taxi into the gym etc. Her response was incredibly thought provoking. She exclaimed in surprise, “Of course, where’s your wheelchair? You looked so natural walking out of the lift that I hadn’t given it a second thought!” This is party about one way of mobilising being normal, and the other, abnormal, natural vs unnatural. Also, somehow on my feet with the Zimmer at least, I feel taller, and don’t look “disabled” as such. That is, until I wobble backwards, or tire, which happens after a few steps. This particular incident has really got me thinking though. With the Zimmer, however I may look more ‘normal’ but I do not have any of the same freedom as I do the majority of the time in my electric wheelchair. I have to be having a ‘good’ day, both in terms of pain and energy levels, and be somewhere “barrier-free”. A different environment, and it’s a different story.

The tragedy… gets trumped by the intent. When you see the athletes using their bodies and equipment, not being used by it, it changes everything.

My electric wheelchair is definitely the mobility aid which allows me to use the most ‘intent’; the wheelchair has a purpose. Like I say, I dictate where I go, without depending on another. I might not have as much leg function as I used to, but it hardly matters in my ‘go faster stripes’ wheelchair! (mine is similar to the one below, although the frame is black rather than this fetching lime green model, and I have extra cushions!)

So, what else does John Hockenberry have to say about the ‘wheeliechair’? He goes on to describe is as “an alternative to walking, not some shameful and inadequate substitute”. WOW. i guess I would find that easier to identify with if I saw a Paralympian such as Hannah Cockroft propelling her chair in the street, than I can use this phrase for myself. It’s  different too, having walked  for the majority of the previous 28 years. However, I have to learn to see myself as the “agent, not the victim”. I’m sorry if this sounds like I’m labouring the same point. I find this video, and the words Hockenberry uses so powerful and transformative, we are participating and whatever caused my disability, or that of anyone I see in the street is “way back there, way back at the starting line!” 

This view of the wheelchair, and other ‘aids’ has the power to turn stereotypes upside down. however, some of this depends on the look of a product, and the design of it, as well as it’s function. An organisation called Enabled by Design, for example, feature reviews of products, ‘specialist’, or not. I have read several articles on the importance of the design of aids and adaptations. These of course cost money, which is what Disability Living Allowance helps to compensate for. They should be just that, something which assists us, and more readily available, as opposed to often prohibitive costs, which would enable more people to be agents, and not victims. It is about more than identity, and the way others view us, but also whether aids are ‘sparkly’ enough! I’m all for sparkly chairs!

I’d love to know what you think of the video, how you view disabled people when you see them in the street, or the design of aids in general.

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