After his stroke, my husband used a wheelchair to get around. The stroke left him paralyzed on his left side and although he was able to walk a few steps with a lot of effort and sometimes with assistance, getting around in a wheelchair was more efficient and less tiring.
More efficient and less tiring, but still a lot of work. The stroke destroyed a large portion of his brain and so he spent hours every week in physical therapy and then on his own working to retrain his brain to coordinate movements that used to come naturally and to recognize signals from parts of his body his brain had forgotten. To learn to sit upright in the wheelchair, he practiced sitting up straight in front of a mirror, developing core control, noticing when he was slumping to one side and using trial and error to activate the muscles necessary to straighten himself out. Once he was able to sit up straight in the chair, he had to learn how to get from the bed or another surface to the wheelchair, how to transfer his weight in ways that wouldn’t potentially cause a fall or injury, and how to work as a team with a person assisting him (that was usually me). He had to train his brain to remember to check that the chair’s brake was on or off and to make sure his paralyzed left arm wasn’t in a position where it could get tangled in the wheel or smashed against a wall if he rolled too close to it.
To get around in the wheelchair, he had to learn to maneuver around people, objects, obstacles, pets, cords, divots in the sidewalk, and obstructions that a person with two functional legs could easily negotiate by straddling, hopping, or stepping over. The world is built for ambulation on two legs; successfully using a wheelchair to navigate a world not built for it is much more complicated than walking.
I know how much effort it took Tom to get around with the wheelchair and it makes me wince to hear that immense effort swept aside with a common phrase: “He’s in a wheelchair.”
My husband’s physical and occupational therapists, his doctors and nurses, his family and friends, used this phrase regularly. Every time I heard it, I winced a little. It minimizes everything about the human being sitting in the chair. It puts the focus on the machinery of the chair, perhaps the requirement of a caregiver or attendant. It renders invisible the person sitting in the chair.
Notice how differently these two sentences hit you:
- During the last year of his life, my husband was in a wheelchair.
- During the last year of his life, my husband used a wheelchair.
In the first sentence, my husband does nothing. There’s actually no action at all in the first sentence. Nobody does anything. It’s boring, implying a boring life and a boring person. If I were to follow this sentence with how much I loved him, you would have been prepared by the first sentence to hear my declaration of love as tinged with pity.
In the second sentence, my husband does something. There is action. He is the boss in that sentence. When I tell you after that sentence that I loved him, you’re much more likely to take it as a love that includes admiration, respect, and passion.
The simple word choice has an effect that ripples out to color the sentences that follow and impact your understanding of everything else I tell you about my husband.
When we say someone “is in a wheelchair,” we’re framing the wheelchair as a state of being, like being in a funk or in a mood. Conversely, when we say someone “uses a wheelchair,” we’re framing the wheelchair as a tool. Because the words we use impact the ways we see the world, a phrase like “in a wheelchair,” which obscures the agency of the person in the wheelchair, is a sneaky way ableism slides unnoticed into our speech and thus our worldview.
“In a wheelchair” implies that someone can’t do anything for themselves, that they are a burden with no agency. It erases all the hard work of navigating a world that is not designed for you. It is easier to leave someone out of an equation when we say they are “in a wheelchair.” On the other hand, “uses a wheelchair” acknowledges that a person can learn a new technology and navigate complex situations. Notice the difference between saying “we can’t hire someone in a wheelchair for this position” versus “we can’t hire someone who uses a wheelchair for this position.” In the first example, no further explanation is needed—of course you can’t hire someone who is a burden with no agency. But the second example does require at least a bit more explanation—why can’t someone who uses a wheelchair do this job?
I admit, I sometimes use this phrase. I’ve heard it so often that it occassionally rolls off my tongue without me even realizing I’ve said the dreaded phrase. But when the person in the wheelchair was the love of my life, whose effort was viscerally apparent to me, I learned how viciously unjust the phrase is. It sweeps aside all the effort, humanity, and agency of the person using the chair.
I know people who use this phrase are, like me, using it unreflectively. They are not issuing judgment on anyone. They mean no harm. They are speaking from a place of sympathy. But the language still does harm, whether the speaker intended it or not.
It’s a pretty easy switch to replace “in a wheelchair” with “uses a wheelchair,” and it will make a difference in how you see people who use wheelchairs.