The wheelchair has been the symbol for disability issues since the 1960s. This is because spinal injuries were dominated in the wounded of World War 2 and the Vietnam wars, making wheelchair users, especially paraplegics, a political issue and drive for change. Clearly, over the years the meanings of impairment and disability have grown to encompass many more conditions.
However, the wheelchair remains the most identifiable notion of impairment and disability in terms of social barriers. This means anyone who uses a wheelchair is easily identified as a ‘disabled person’, which can have a significant psychological and social impact for them.
For newly impaired people with impairments and those with progressive conditions, the point on their journey when they need to consider using a wheelchair is likely to be an emotionally significant event for them because it may be the first time they have needed to confront their identity as a disabled person.
The disability identity has historically been linked with weakness, inferiority, vulnerability, otherness and other traits. The media, both in terms of the news and fictional material, have historically heavily relied on negative stereotypes and often use disability as a one-dimensional metaphor, although the portrayal of people with impairments in the media is slowly improving. This backdrop as well as where someone is in their acceptance of their impairment can cause their adopting of a wheelchair to be an emotional event.
While I used to mostly walk as someone with cp, I am now mostly a full-time wheelchair user. Using a wheelchair in the long term can become an important part of someone’s public identity. At age 45 I have almost forgotten what it is like to walk full time and I find it hard to picture myself walking but that could be the same with a lot of things as we all grow older. As an aside, it is more evidence that cerebral palsy is not as non-progressive as I and many others was told when we were younger.
I believe many people with mobility impairments choose to use a mobility scooter rather than a wheelchair because of the stigma associated with a wheelchair. even when it is not the most suitable option. I feel too many people are trying to use mobility scooters as wheelchairs to avoid using a wheelchair when they are two very different devices. In terms of public transport. this identity denial is causing real practical issues as scooter users demand the same level of accessibility as wheelchair users.
Wheelchair and personhood is an interesting subject at many levels and there should be an open discussion in the public debate on issues involved to assist in improving the understanding of a whole range impairment issues by the general population as the subject can be more normalised.
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