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!
This 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.