How to Answer: Why are You in a Wheelchair?

Why am I in A wheelchair

“Why are you in a wheelchair?”
It is a question I get asked, in every style and manner one could think of, by children from every background, almost every time I am in a public place.

I have also been asked some form of that question by children of varying levels of ability to understand the answer. Recently, while meeting kids participating in the Social Skills Camp at Friendship Circle, I was confronted by nearly half a dozen campers over the course of an hour that were curious to know “What’s wrong with you?”

I was diagnosed with a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy (called Friedreich’s Ataxia) when I was 12 years old and still walking (albeit not well, more like I’d been spun on the merry-go-round one too many times).

I started using the wheelchair part-time when I was 14 and my progressive disease took over from there, by 20 I was in a wheelchair full-time and at 26, I can no longer step or stand. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with me (no more so than there is with anyone else).
But, I certainly won’t say all this to a child.

So how should one answer “Why is that person in a wheelchair?” or “What is wrong with them?” to a child with special needs.

1. Encourage questions

So often I see parents shush their child or scold them when they verbalize a natural curiosity with regards to a physical disability. This holds true for all children, regardless of age or ability. Parents: Encourage the questions that you can answer in a positive way.

Example: “Their body is made differently than ours, and they use the wheelchair to get around. There isn’t anything wrong with being different, it’s actually pretty cool!”

Some children with special needs will want further information, where some will quickly move on to something else. The point here is to not create a taboo about being different. Chances are a child with an intellectual or developmental disability will be told, to their face, that there is something wrong with them (especially because their disability is not visible). Having it reinforced that different doesn’t equal wrong, is an important step in securing self-esteem.

Wheelchair Rugby

Wheelchair rugby is intensely physical and is played in specially modified wheelchairs

2. Talk It Up

For the child whose curiosity cannot be satisfied, use the opportunity to point out all the cool things people with that particular physical disability can do. People who use wheelchairs do almost every sport imaginable, from rugby to track, with the help of some pretty nifty equipment.

People with visual impairments play soccer with a ball full of ball bearings to be heard by players

People with visual impairments have their own soccer leagues and many have a talent for the arts. People with hearing impairments have their very own language, American Sign Language! And, that’s only the beginning!

3. Go to the Source

It is always good practice to make children comfortable with people who are different from them. That being said, each circumstance and each child is different.

When possible, encourage the child to ask the person, or accompany you while you ask the person why they live life differently.

REMEMBER: Most people with a physical disability would rather be asked than talked about behind their backs. We must always be respectful of accepting what they tell us and not pushing for details and be aware that some individuals have both physical and intellectual disabilities and may have difficulty answering questions.  In these situations a parent or adult plays an important role.

Before approaching the individual, discuss what you will ask and approach with an introduction to make clear your child’s intent to learn.

Examples:

Parent: “Hello, my name is Pam and this is my son, Adam. Adam asked me why you use a wheelchair. Would it be alright to ask you that?”

Parent: “You seem to get around very well! My daughter, Eden, was wondering why you move differently.”

Of course, circumstances are not always best to approach someone. For children with social interaction limitations, it may be best for a parent or adult to answer their questions themselves. In these cases be sure to educate them on which words and names are or are not appropriate.

4. A Name is Not Just a Name

Just as you don’t want your child labeled by certain derogatory terms, so I don’t want to be labeled with hurtful or limiting terms.

Do’s:
Make sure to use “People First” Language—ex. Person in a wheelchair vs. wheelchair user

Names (not descriptions of disability e.g. “blind” or “deaf” boy)

Don’ts:
Derogatory Terms (e.g. cripple, handicapped)

“Wrong” (e.g. “What’s wrong with you?”)

It is my sincere belief that we all have a “disability” of some kind: a limitation that we must overcome or adapt our lives to. Some disabilities are simply more prominent than others. Everyone can learn to respect other peoples’ limitations, and no child should be chastised when they notice a limitation of someone in the world they live in.

Instead, help them understand that there are disabilities and differences everywhere in the world around them, including their own, making the world the tapestry of colors and experiences that it is.

Robin

Written on 2012/08/23 by:

Robin

Robin Bennett has been a strong advocate of all individuals with disabilities since her own diagnosis at age 12 of Friedreich’s Ataxia left her dependent on a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Graduated in 2009 from Eastern Michigan University (EMU) with a Bachelor’s of Science in Creative Writing and Theater, Robin is currently pursuing her Master’s of Public Administration at EMU. She has worked and written for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living and Integrated Living Solutions.. Robin enjoys laughing with friends, being a mentor to adults with developmental disabilities and proving that a book cannot be judged by its cover.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/debbie.bennett.7549 Debbie Bennett

    the author’s approach is spot on. I look forward to reading the next blog entry

  • Don Dorschel

    Robin — great article…well thought out and beautifully expressed.

  • TexasMama

    Wow! That was awesome! I am so glad I stumbled upon your article! My daughter is a wheelchair user and this helps immensely. It taught me even, things I never thought could be offending to others, but it is. I’ll be sure to change my lingo up and be more aware of how I ask questions or even have more patience with how others approach my daughter.

  • Don Breedwell

    Thanks for helping out. I have a student who uses a wheel chair and since school has started there are several new students that want to know what’s “wrong” with him. Since he is also non-verbal, we help with the answers. “He uses wheels, like you use feet. Not really that different.” “No, he cannot talk with his mouth, but watch his eyes and you will be able to understand him when you talk with him.” Thanks for point out the “people first” language. We are teaching one student at time that same thing and hopefully when they become the leaders they will already be accepting that we all are “abled” in different ways.

  • http://www.katscafe.org/ Katrina Moody

    What an excellent resource! So happy to have stumbled upon this!

  • http://twitter.com/dkotucker Adventures w/Autism

    Great article! I will definitely be passing this along. Thank you for sharing!

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.burkett.5667 Chris Burkett

    What the Paralympics mean to us parents of special-needs children
    http://thesoundofthesilent.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/what-paralympics-mean-to-us-parents-of.html

  • Patti R

    Great blog post Robin, I always enjoy reading your posts.