PARENTS: I am Not a Parenting Tool!
Children will always have questions about the world around them, and that includes people in wheelchairs. How would you handle it?
Sometimes, one of the most challenging parts about being a parent is teaching your child about those who are different to them, whether your child has a disability or not. While there is no right way to do this, one mother I encountered on the bus home from uni one day found the wrong way to do it.
As a wheelchair user, I am used to people staring. Children are naturally very curious, trying to learn about the world around them. I don’t mind children staring at all. I don’t mind them asking questions, to me or to their parent. I don’t mind at all. What I do mind, is this:
I was traveling home on the bus, in the wheelchair bay, minding my own business, when the bell rang for the driver to stop. Next came the rapid thudding of a small child who had broken free from their mother’s grasp thundering down the stairs. Then, the mother, assumingely thinking I couldn’t hear, scolded her child:
“You must NEVER run down the stairs like that, you’ll fall and end up like that poor lady in the wheelchair”.
I will admit I lost my cool a little bit.
I shouted back at her “Excuse me, was that necessary? That was incredibly disrespectful! Don’t ever EVER threaten your child with being put in a wheelchair again!”
There are so many things wrong with what she said.
I do not exist to make your child behave. You are making an example of me that I did not consent to. Much like in restaurants, when parents say “You must behave, or the waiter will tell you off.” No, they won’t. You can’t just drag random members of the public into your lecture. I am an independent human being, trying to get home like everybody else. Being used like that is not only humiliating, but dehumanising. I stop being a human and start being a consequence.
“Poor person in a wheelchair” is just so wrong. Disabled people don’t deserve to be pitied like that. Being a wheelchair user is not a fault. It is not a flaw. It is not some terrible thing that we all need to fear. It is not the worst thing that could ever happen to a person. We face struggles and challenges, and by no means do I speak for all disabled people when I say this, but my life isn’t by any means bad enough to be used as a deterrent. I have a degree in Pharmacology. I’m starting my Master’s degree in September. I play wheelchair basketball. I have a great life.
You are perpetuating the idea that ending up in a wheelchair is the worst possible thing that could happen to you. Ok, the prospect of having to rely on a wheelchair for any period of time, especially long term is scary. I was there once, it is scary. But it happens. People adapt. As I mentioned before, my life didn’t take a nose dive when I started using the wheelchair. Life in a wheelchair actually has a lot of its own unique perks (which I will write in a future article). A wheelchair can be very freeing for people who otherwise would not be able to be independent. They are absolutely necessary in a lot of cases.
Picture this situation. Your child is in an accident, and they break their leg badly. They need to use a wheelchair for a period of time while they heal. Would you want them to be so scared of using a wheelchair that they’d rather risk further injury by refusing it? Or would you want them to be confident and accepting, and learn to adapt, despite still being a bit scared? Would you want them to worry about what you think?
In my situation, it is risky to walk all the time as I could cause more damage to myself, and definitely more pain. I don’t think it’s worth the risk to refuse the wheelchair, and I don’t think my parents would want me to risk it just to stay out of a wheelchair.
You are perpetuating the idea that all people use wheelchairs due to an accident. Spoiler alert: they don’t. I use mine due to chronic and degenerative conditions, like ankylosing spondylitis, arthritis, fibromyalgia, dysautonomias etc. Other use theirs for genetic conditions, for example ehlers-danlos syndrome or muscular dystrophy. Others use theirs for conditions they’ve had since birth, like cerebral palsy. Others use theirs because of an accident. Nobody uses one because they disobeyed their parents. That child probably went about the rest of the day thinking I use the wheelchair because I was being silly on the stairs, and that my parents live in a perpetual state of “I told you so.”
Ok, slight exaggeration, they probably thought about seeing their friends at the park, or going home for a snack. But you get what I’m saying.
It was a cheap shot. And it was lazy. What would have been wrong with saying “Don’t jump on the stairs, you could fall and hurt yourself.” Or if you have to make it about other people, use the whole bus, rather than singling out one person who you deem has a low enough quality of life to make a good example of. “Don’t jump on the stairs, if you fall you’ll keep the driver waiting for you to get back up, and make all these people late.”
That being said if your child was to specifically ask questions about a person in a wheelchair, or with another disability, after seeing them on a bus, or in the streets, it is a brilliant opportunity for you to teach your child about the world of disability from there. Don’t deter them from asking questions, they’re children, and their questions come from a place of innocent curiosity, and it provides a perfect opportunity for them to learn. I encourage you to take this opportunity to tell your child that people can be in wheelchairs for a variety of reasons, don’t fear disabled people - they’re people too, and sometimes wheelchairs happen.
If you wouldn't want something said to your child, don't say it about other people.