Ableist Word Profile: Wheelchair Bound

Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

I considered making this entire post “People don’t like being told they’re wheelchair bound. Stop doing it. Try ‘wheelchair user’ instead. Thank you.”

Then I remembered how often that argument is rejected. [My favourite: But I don’t like the terms that people with disabilities prefer, and I’m way more important!]

[I used to make really flippant comments about how no one is actually bound to their wheelchair, in order to make people think about what their words meant. Then I started reading reports of people being bound to their wheelchairs and, in extreme cases, left to die. Flippant comments are less funny after that.]

Shackling language like “wheelchair bound” is problematic because it leaves the average listener with the idea, again, that wheelchairs are a tragedy. You’re stuck in one, and it’s horrible, and you can’t do anything or go anywhere and it’s so very very sad, and isn’t their life such a tragedy. Just because of being bound to that wheelchair.

The thing is, a wheelchair is the exact opposite of a tragedy. As the blogger at Accessibility Net in New Zealand put it:

I then explain: I’m not wheelchair bound. I’m not tied to the wheelchair. To use the term “wheelchair bound” implies *limitations*. When in fact, the wheelchair is a tool of freedom. It’s without that wheelchair that I am seriously limited.

So each time I am told I am wheelchair bound, the implied message I get is “you’re in a wheelchair, you’re limited”. Yeah, I’m in a wheelchair, it gives me wings!

A white woman (Anna), sunburned and tired looking, stands behind a white man (Don), also sunburned and tired looking, in a manual wheelchair.  They are posed in front of a wooden figurehead of a mermaidThis certainly mirrors the experience Don had when getting his sexy sexy wheelchair of awesome. He went from not being able to get out of the house more than once a week, if that, to being able to not only go out several times a week, but doing it with only limited pain. The wheelchair opened up the possibility of our enjoying this strange, hilly city we moved to. [That’s us in the picture, after two days of handling the hills in historic downtown Lunenburg. Usually he uses an electric wheelchair, but we rented the manual for the trip. I vividly remember how exhausting getting up those hills were, which I think is obvious if you look at both our faces.]

Wheelchair user also reminds us who is (or should be) in charge of the chair. The person using the chair should be directing it, even if they’re not able to control it themselves. [This is a great post by Wheelchair Dancer about how to push a wheelchair. Learn it, live it, love it, folks.] When we talk about people who are using wheelchairs as though they have some agency, we’re reminding ourselves and others that they should have that agency.

Thirdly, wheelchair user is inclusive of people who are either full- or part-time wheelchair users. There are people who only have to use a wheelchair during high pain days, or in the winter, or after an accident, or for only six months, etc. “Wheelchair bound” always has an air of permanence to it, while wheelchair user can be both permanent or temporary, and using terms like full- or part- time wheelchair user reinforces the idea that folks who only use wheelchairs for certain activities aren’t faking a disability.

I hope this much longer version of my originally-planned post still gets at my basic argument: People don’t like being told they’re wheelchair bound. Stop doing it. Try ‘wheelchair user’ instead. Thank you.

21 Comments

  1. The only time someone should ever be bound to their wheelchair is if they’re about to go bungee jumping (Youtube link). (Sorry, I could not find a captioned version of this video.)

  2. Hi Anna,

    I just have one question, which is really more about the Ableist Word Profile blurb than about your column. What do you mean by this statement?

    “Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies.”

    It could be read to suggest that you don’t think it’s important to eradicate sexist language from our vocabularies. Although I’m guessing that’s probably not what you meant, it does make me wonder what you were intending when you made that distinction.

    Thanks for writing/engaging on these issues!

  3. I always analogize to “shoebound” when I’m trying to explain it. People tend to boggle a minute but then seem to be able to admit that yes, they really cannot imagine being able to go out into the word without shoes. Invariably, they’ll say, “But I don’t have to wear shoes *all* the time,” and I’ll point out that people who use wheelchairs don’t tend to use them all the time, either, and, as with all things, it varies person to person.

    Some of us who walk can and do go barefoot on the beach, while others need shoes because we’re sensitive to the heat of the sand. Some of us walk around barefoot in the house but others need slippers all the time because their feet get too cold. Some of us have calloused soles and can run out to the kerb to bring out the trash without wearing shoes. Others have delicate skin and can’t imagine touching pavement without shoes on.

    It’s not a perfect analogy, but it works to get at the variability of the experience and the tools (as not all shoes are the same in functionality, not all wheelchairs are the same either). And in both cases, the key is freedom of mobility that the tool provides us.

  4. Thinking about this a little, I wonder if some less awkward version of “wheelchairer” could be put into use. Akin to say, “biker” or “rider” or “driver”, etc, this gets away from the “oh noes, wheelchairs are sad” sentiments and can even include the part-time user of wheelchairs without reflecting poorly on anybody.

    I’d suggest Wheeler, but that brings to mind the 90s cartoon Captain Planet – not an association I’d want.

  5. Thanks so much for this post. I loathe the phrase “wheelchair bound” and “confined to a wheelchair,” the second for the same reasons as the first. Both imply cramped, pathetic lives full of limitations and don’t suggest that people in wheelchairs actually do things!!

  6. This was great–unpacked the hurtfulness of “wheelchair bound” really handily and also provided a great alternative.

  7. i especially love it when people say (way more often than i care to say) that “wheelchairs are welcome at this event!” or “unfortunately, wheelchairs cannot access the space”, as though its just a wheelchair, no person, rolling into the room LOL.

    i laugh at the image it creates in my mind, but not at the reality: the *thing* is what they can perceive, not the actual *person* using it.

    Good article 🙂

  8. Quixotess very generously prepared a description and transcript of the video linked above! All hail Quixotess.

    RICK HANSEN ON RICK MERCER REPORT

    [Introductory shots of sunny outdoors, statue of man in wheelchair, etc, set to a very upbeat, actiony sort of music. The clip in general is liberally sprinkled with laugh tracks and cuts from line to line. Rick Mercer is a smarmy sort and a lot of his reactions and dialogue with Warren look very scripted indeed.]

    [Cut to Mercer, alone, walking down a dirt road.]

    Mercer: Welcome to Whistler, British Columbia! It has been twenty-five years since Rick Warren got in his wheelchair and traveled forty thousand kilometers around the globe, in his Man in Motion world tour. Hansen has confronted and conquered it all, from the Great Wall of China to inaccessible washrooms in thirty four countries. Well, the one thing that the man in motion has never done is plunge! one hundred and sixty feet! off a bridge! into a gorge! with a raging river at the bottom! [looks enormously satisfied with himself] Today that changes, because today is the day that Rick Hansen and I–

    Camera pulls out so that we can see that Mercer is not alone. Hansen is beside him. Hansen’s lines generally come off as more genuine than Mercer’s.]

    Mercer: –go bungee jumping! [They put their arms around each other, then Mercer removes his arm.] Unless I chicken out.

    Hansen: Hey. If I’m doing it, you’re doing it, buddy.

    Mercer: Are you ready for this?

    Hansen: Well, what do you think? No. [both laugh]

    Mercer: Neither am I. Let’s go.

    Hansen: Let’s go.

    [Establishing shots of someone bungee jumping off the site they will be using.]

    [Mercer and Hansen by the open trunk of a van.]

    Mercer: Do you like heights?

    Hansen: Oh, I love about five or six feet.

    Mercer: Good.

    Hansen: How high is this?

    Mercer: Oh, hundred and sixty feet?

    Hansen: You’ve helped challenge me to stretch my boundaries again!

    Mercer: That’s right! That’s what I’m doing!

    [Mercer and Hansen are now walking and wheeling the bridge leading to the site.]

    Mercer: Tell me, Rick. When you are confronted with something that is terrifying you, how do you psych yourself up to actually do it?

    Hansen: Well, the first thing you do is you go into denial.

    Mercer: Yes, I’m there. Denial!

    Hansen: All right. Then you go into a sense of studying what it is you’re dealing with.

    Mercer: Right.

    Hansen: Kay, so, look down.

    Mercer: Oh god, look at that.

    [They reach the platform. Mercer shakes the hand of worker there.]

    Mercer: Hi there. Are you Chris?

    Chris: I’m Chris.

    Mercer: Hi Chris, this is Rick Hansen.

    [Chris and Hansen shake hands, saying “hi, how are you doing, nice to see you” but it’s too difficult to tell who is saying what. You realize that everyone in the video so far is a white guy.]

    Mercer: So, Chris, walk us through bungee jumping here in Whistler.

    Chris: Well, bungee jumping here in Whistler. [Gesturing off-camera] Well, we have a test dummy here–

    Mercer: Hey, hello.

    Chris: –that’s gonna give you, uh–

    Mercer: That’s a terrible thing to say. [Chris laughs.]

    [Camera moves to show us the “test dummy,” who is an actual woman. Facepalm! She shakes hands with Mercer.]

    Mercer: Hi, how are you, what’s your name?

    Lindy: Lindy.

    Mercer: Lindy, this is Rick.

    [Lindy and Hansen shake hands.]

    Hansen: Hi.

    Lindy: Hi.

    [Cut to Mercer gesturing as if to send Lindy off the platform, then to Lindy jumping off fearlessly. Mercer and Hansen look on. Mercer is laughing nervously, clearly unable to believe he’s going to do the same thing. We can only see the back of Hansen’s head, so we can’t quite tell how he reacts. Cut to Chris wrapping yellow bungee cord around Hansen’s chair.]

    Mercer: That looks very secure.

    Hansen: That’s the slipknot?

    Mercer: Yeah. Don’t be nervous until the duct tape shows up.

    Hansen: Yeah.

    [Chris is now wrapping orange bungee cord around Hansen and his chair.]

    Mercer: You got the orange rope. That’s good.

    Chris: Safety rope.

    Mercer: Yeah. Easy to find at the bottom of the river. [Chris laughs.]

    Mercer [to Hansen]: When you did the Man in Motion tour, the tour itself, you raised like how much?

    Hansen: Twenty six million.

    Mercer: Twenty six million dollars. But the point of the tour wasn’t to raise money.

    Hansen: No. It was to raise awareness of the potential of people with disabilities.

    Mercer: People with disabilities, what they can do.

    Hansen: What’s possible if barriers were removed.

    Mercer: Right. And now people know that people with disabilities can do all sorts of things. But when I told people I was going bungee jumping with you, a lot of smart people said, well, he can’t do that, he’s in a wheelchair.

    Hansen: Yeah, there’s still, you know, a big frontier.

    Mercer: Mm-hm.

    Hansen: There’s a lot of people doing–

    Mercer: Bungee! Last frontier!

    Chris: We have some liability waivers we need you to sign.

    Mercer [reading from waiver]: You don’t have any skeletal, joint, or ligament issues, do you?

    Hansen: Just a spinal injury. [Both laugh.]

    Mercer [as Chris is outfitting him with harness]: Has anyone ever gotten up here and, just, you know, paid their money, you open the gate, and they just don’t go?

    Chris: Yep.

    Mercer: This is it? [referring to harness]

    Chris: That’s it.

    Mercer: A keychain. That’s what I’m being held on. A keychain, Rick! [cut; he’s now talking to Chris again.] So when I go down and I wham down, I’m gonna come back up?

    Chris: Yeah.

    Mercer: And then down again?

    Chris: Yeah.

    Mercer: And then up again.

    Chris: Yeah.

    Mercer: And then down again.

    Chris: And then down again. And one more time up.
    Mercer: My impersonation of Stephen Harper’s moodswings. [cut: he’s now talking to Hansen.[ I don’t know who I’m angrier at. Myself, for coming up with the idea, or you for agreeing.

    Hansen: For agreeing, yeah.

    Mercer: Cause we coulda went fishing.

    Hansen: I know.

    Mercer: And fishing is fun. [Cut; he’s now talking to no one in particular.] Nerves of steel. [Cut: he’s now talking to Chris.] I just hope at the end of this, you’re the only one in a wheelchair.

    Hansen [extending hand to shake]: Been nice knowing you, buddy.

    [Cut to Mercer finally backed up at the edge of the platform, ready physically–though not emotionally–to jump off. He’s pretty nervous and scared throughout this scene, and it looks genuine.]

    Hansen: You can do it, buddy.

    Mercer: I know, I can! I can. People have done it before.

    Chris: You’re gonna jump back, and–

    Mercer: And smile. And smile. [to Hansen] Any final words?

    Hansen: Just go for it. Remember, you’re my hero, Rick.

    Mercer: Okay, all right, let’s just do it. Let’s just do it.

    Hansen: Okay. Five, four–

    Mercer: Wait. [laughs] My knees are buckling.

    Hansen: That’s good.

    Mercer: Yeah.

    Hansen: Sooner or later, they’re gonna give. [Mercer laughs] The whole nation’s watching you now, Rick. Okay, ready?

    Mercer: I’m a coward.

    Hansen: Counting down.

    Mercer: I’m a coward.

    Hansen: Five–

    Mercer: Okay, no, no, not yet! Okay, so that’s bad. [Indistinguishable.]

    Hansen: Five, four, three, two, one, go!

    [Mercer screws up his face and jumps. Down and up and down and up he goes, yelling, while Hansen reacts with “holy smokes!”]

    Mercer: I’m like a pinata for a grizzly bear!

    Hansen: Oh-h-h. He did it! Yes!

    Mercer: I’m alive, Rick! I have to twitter this! [is shown with a phone.]

    Hansen: That’s inspired me.

    Mercer: It’s so much fun. It’s so terrifying. You’re gonna love it.

    Hansen: What’s that smell?

    [Mercer is finally back up on the platform, being helped up out of the harness. He and Hansen shake hands.]

    Hansen: You were fantastic! Congratulations!

    Mercer: Now it’s your turn, brother.

    Hansen: That was so cool!

    Mercer: When you were counting down, I didn’t wanna go. I can’t wait to count down for you.

    Hansen: Oh, look at the time. [both laugh]

    [Chris is outfitting Hansen with the harness.]

    Mercer: You know those type of athletes who try to get into the other athlete’s head?

    Hansen: You have the upper hand.

    Mercer: Oh yeah, totally.

    Hansen: Before–

    Mercer: Before, I was a coward. Now, I’m a braggart. So you’re only strapped in like this so you can’t change your mind. The stuff we get into.

    Hansen: You are a bad man.

    Mercer: It’s the man in motion. Except it’s down this time.

    [All three are counting together]: One, two, three!

    [Hansen jumps off the platform. Shots of him going down and up and down again, Mercer’s reaction, etc]

    Mercer: Rick, how are you?

    Hansen: Hey! I can’t feel my legs!

    Mercer: Oh no!

    Hansen: That was cool, man!

    Mercer: Unbelievable. It’s not every day you see a guy in a wheelchair dangling over a gorge. Rick Hansen.

    [Shots of Hansen smiling, being pulled up, reaching the platform again.]

    Mercer: You, my friend, are alive!

    Hansen: Hey, I’m still alive! We did it! [they shake hands.]

    Mercer: We certainly did. That was great.

    Hansen: You were awesome.

    Mercer: You too. That was scary.

    Hansen: Thanks for challenging me.

    Mercer: Well, thank you for coming for the challenge, and making me do it. Next time we’ll go fishing.

    Hansen: You got it.

    [Close: RMR: The Rick Mercer Report.]

  9. Someday I’ll probably be a wheelchair user — my condition keeps getting worse and walking gets more difficult and more painful. I’ll only be wheelchair bound when some nice person ties me to it for sexy fun times.

  10. Good post, Anna!! 🙂

  11. This post reminds me that I can’t stand the word “bound” even if used in a presumably positive context. You know, blind people are, according to one organization of the blind, “college-bound” and “employment-bound”. That organization means to point out that blindness in itself shouldn’t be a reason not to go to college or get a job, but with the word “bound” put in, they fail to recognize the many individual factors that might influence blind people’s college or job choices.

  12. Phedre,

    Part of the reason we specifically talk about ableist language here instead of sexist language is because there are many feminist blogs and works and columns and books and videos and the like that talk about sexist language. Our intent here is to apply both a feminist framework to disability-related discussions, and a disability rights framework to feminist discussions.

    I personally think discussions about sexist language are very well covered elsewhere, but actual discussions of ableist language that offers both reasons and alternatives are not as common. (They’re out there, no doubt – no one here is blogging from within a vacuum or reinventing the wheel.)

    If that doesn’t answer your concerns, let me know, although I should note that this is a busy day for me (Oh, Wednesday, you hate me so), and thus I may not get back to you very quickly.

  13. I couldn’t quite sort out what I thought of the Rick Mercer report, but I have seen it a few times. He does another one (I can’t think of where I’d find it right now, I’m sorry) where he goes hiking with the Mayor of Vancouver, who was injured in some sort of skiing accident and is now paraplegic. He still goes hiking, but again with the assistance of other people – four or five of his friends carry him in a sort of travois he invented to allow him to still enjoy outdoor sports.

    I’m happy that someone as high profile and Canadian as Mercer puts time into showing that people with disabilities (well, in this case, both men, and both athletes, and both white, and both high profile, but you know what I mean, I hope) are still able to do such things, if that is their want. (Certainly not everyone can – I can’t imagine how Don would handle something like that, since he’s got a chronic pain condition.)

    I mean, there’s baggage that comes with all of this, of course, but there’s something to be said for it, too. (This, of course, is influenced by the fact that I like Rick Mercer.)

  14. Thank you to Quixotess for making the transcription and meloukhia for sharing it. Next time I will make a transcription myself or ask someone else who’s willing.

    Mercer also did something with a university wheelchair rugby team, but I haven’t watched that one in full. It does continue the tradition of “athletic” (and, from the shots I saw, white too, although not exclusively male and high profile). I really enjoyed the video (hence sharing it), but had trouble assessing whether Mercer’s constant interruptions and talking over Hansen was more about trying to get his obligatory jokes out, or how easy many abled-bodied people find it to talk over or ignore someone in a wheelchair. But Hansen’s crack about not feeling his legs was too funny not to enjoy.

  15. i especially love it when people say (way more often than i care to say) that “wheelchairs are welcome at this event!” or “unfortunately, wheelchairs cannot access the space”, as though its just a wheelchair, no person, rolling into the room LOL.

    The first one I could see as analagous to “strollers are welcome at this event”, where it would be addressed to the people bringing the objects, not to the objects themselves. But the second, just no.

  16. “(This, of course, is influenced by the fact that I like Rick Mercer.)”

    He did grow on me as the video went on. His humor didn’t seem to be cruel, and he seemed genuinely interested in people (which only makes sense; you have to have enormous charisma to do a job like what he’s doing.)

    And “I can’t feel my legs” was totally great.

  17. I was trying to explain this in relation to last week’s episode of Glee (which, I know is so well covered in many other posts, so I’m going to try not to hijack the thread to talk about it here) & how they just played into the “Oh Noes: Wheelchairs!” ableist attitude the whole time, instead of giving the characters a chance to realize that wow: Artie’s wheelchair really enables him to participate in so many more things. As a (majority of the time) chair user myself, I am always super aware of just how much more limited my life would be without it… As in, I can’t walk, or stand unassisted, so … would you like to hold college classes in my bedroom in order for me to get my degree? (Wow… that sounds a lot dirtier than it was meant: oops.) And Miriam – I think shoebound is a pretty apt comparison, and I hadn’t thought of it like that before.
    .-= NTE´s last blog ..Stepped in it this time =-.

  18. Thanks for linking to the post by Wheelchair Dancer. My best friend and I were in a car accident this past spring and with her leg broken in 2 places, she was in a wheelchair for 3 months, and I took her out a lot. Some of that, we had to learn the hard way, like how hitting bumps risked pitching her forwards. And she hated it if I’d start “helping” her by pushing her when she wasn’t expecting it. And it was hard to discover how “wheelchair accessible” does not necessarily mean “wheelchair friendly.” I know at least one restaurant that, if I hadn’t been in the bathroom with her, she would have had a VERY hard time getting herself out of.

    The biggest thing I’d ask other people is if you see us struggling with a door, please get up and hold it for us! (Though we got better at navigating tough doors the longer she was in the chair.) Some people did, but most people just ignored us. I promise not to chew anyone out for being helpful!

  19. Whenever I think of “wheelchair bound” I think of going TO a wheelchair. Like “homeward bound” only with wheelchairs rather than houses.

    But the people who are always described as “wheelchair bound” are usually already IN their chairs. Maybe they’re going to other chairs…

  20. I got to correct this particular phrase while beta reading a friend’s fanfic today, and this post gave me a way to explain why! Thanks for keeping ableist word choices in the spotlight.

  21. Rachel:

    Thinking about this a little, I wonder if some less awkward version of “wheelchairer” could be put into use. Akin to say, “biker” or “rider” or “driver”, etc, this gets away from the “oh noes, wheelchairs are sad” sentiments and can even include the part-time user of wheelchairs without reflecting poorly on anybody.

    I’d suggest Wheeler, but that brings to mind the 90s cartoon Captain Planet – not an association I’d want.

    What about “Wheelist”, kind of like “cyclist” or “motorist”?