“In a Wheelchair” Doesn’t Mean “Paraplegic”

A lot of people get surprised any time someone in a wheelchair manages to stand up or walk a few steps. Somewhere along the way, the idea got popularized: if someone’s in a wheelchair, their legs are flat-out paralyzed. They’re physically incapable of standing, and they probably can’t even sense anything below the waist.

Well, that’s just wrong. (Source: my wife has used a wheelchair for over 10 years.)

There are a lot of conditions that can put someone in a wheelchair. The vast majority of chair-users can stand up and walk — or hobble — at least a few feet. Maybe up to 50 or so, before they fall over, get tired, one of their joints gives out, or whatever.

So the people going “it’s a miracle!” about the guy in the wheelchair standing up to applaud Roger Federer’s amazing save in the Australian Open are missing the mark. Completely.

This ties in with the usual (horrible) phrasing of “wheelchair-bound”. People who use wheelchairs don’t consider themselves “bound” to them. Quite the opposite; a wheelchair gives them freedom. Freedom to leave their house, to roam around the world under their own power, even if their legs wouldn’t normally be able to carry them that far.

An analogy: most people in the US use cars to go places. (Heck, people in Los Angeles are famous for using cars even to go very short distances.) But we can actually walk. The fact that the average American uses a car to go any further than a quarter-mile doesn’t mean they’re “car-bound” or “confined to a car”.

In fact, most people feel that a car gives them much more freedom. Wheelchair users feel the same way about their own assistive technology.

For wheelchair users, the distance they can walk unaided is just a lot shorter. A few feet or tens of feet, instead of the one or two thousand that seem to be the limit of how far a modern American adult will walk without demanding a car. (That’s a ridiculously short distance for a healthy adult, by the way, and goes a long way toward explaining America’s obesity epidemic. But that’s a rant for another time.)

Yes, that puts it very well.

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