Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The View From A Wheelchair

Imagine if no one spoke to you directly, choosing to direct all questions and conversation at the people around you as if you didn’t exist, just because you were wearing black shoes? Or what if you couldn’t be included in the class photograph with all of your classmates and friends at school because you were wearing black shoes and couldn't fit on the podium?

This has nothing to do with black shoes obviously.

Sadly these are real and common examples of how people of all ages, but in particular children, are treated if they use a wheelchair for mobility.

There is a common misconception that because you rely on a mobility aid, in particular a wheelchair, then your intellectual and communication capacity must also be impaired. Add the ‘burden’ of youth or childhood to that scenario and you could be downright invisible.

So to add to the limitations of living at seat height and being unable to do simple things that most of us take for granted, like to stand and make eye contact to chat, or ask for assistance over a high counter, you are treated as a non person and talked about as though you are not even there.

It’s a pretty bleak picture, but it doesn’t need to be that way and by using a little common sense and understanding you can help break down the barriers for people of all ages who happen to use a wheelchair and make a lot of difference.

Don’t make assumptions about the person’s mobility or intellectual capacity. Speak to them as you would any other new person you meet, but don’t ask rude questions either!

Greet them as you would anybody else with a handshake and a smile. And for heaven’s sake don’t pat them on the head as one high profile politician did recently.

Don’t touch the person or the chair without permission. Would you touch any other stranger in such a way? The chair is an extension of their personal space. Try to get down to their level and make conversation at their eye height whenever possible.

Don’t stand too close in a group situation and block the person in the wheelchair from others in the conversation. Widen the circle and include them.

In a perfect world, any person in a wheelchair, regardless of their financial circumstances, could choose to have a standing wheelchair if they wish, allowing them to navigate the world at different heights depending on their activities. 

Perhaps that perfect world exists after 2018, when DisabilityCare Australia is expected to have been rolled out to all those eligible. At least it would be nice to think that one day this could be the case if they so choose!

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