I have noticed when going out in the wheelchair that people have a tendency to talk to me. I’m addressed in shops, regardless of whether I am the customer or not. I’m chatted up whilst waiting in line and often asked if I need assistance by passersby when I’m waiting outside for Chris to finish up inside inaccessible stores. I’m the friendly and polite type and respond to staff in stores by redirecting them to Chris if he’s the customer, returning a smile and a few words when conversations are struck up and kindly declining assistance when offered. I have also noticed that on days where I take the crutches, I’m often asked how I was injured and wished a speedy recovery and when I take the walking stick and lean on Chris’ arm, I’m not asked engaged in conversation at all.
I can’t help wondering if this is due to disability awareness training, in either an official or unofficial/subliminal capacity, whether people automatically stare, catch themselves and then feel the need to talk to you so that it doesn’t seem as if they were staring or whether it’s a sense of charity and wanting to assist or do something nice for someone that appears to be less fortunate than you think yourself to be.It’s not that these nuances of interaction change depending on how people perceive me that bothers me, but day after day it grows a little tiring. I am not a very social person and I prefer to be left alone. If I’m the customer, then by all means, talk to me unless I specifically ask for an intermediary to help me communicate (some days my hearing is pretty awful and when I’ve dislocated my jaw recently, talking is extremely painful and words a little garbled), but if I’m just minding my own business, it would be nice if other people did the same and treated me just the same as they would anybody else regardless of how I may appear to them.
Thinking about how people communicate with someone in a wheelchair made me think about all the other issues that arise. I don’t expect everyone to always try and make eye contact and drop down to my level, but when conversations drag out a little bit, it’s a nice change when they do. Or even if they just back up just a little further away so that I can make eye contact without straining my neck. When going out with an assistant who has to push the chair for me, communication often becomes impossible. I can hear them but not see them which can make it difficult for me and they can’t hear me unless they come around to the front or I tilt my head backwards constantly.
Wheelchairs create communication barriers. Part of it is purely practical, being at a different height, facing in a different direction than you otherwise would makes it difficult to carry on a conversation. Part of it is perception, people tend to have differing opinions of how to interact with someone in a wheelchair and usually, unless they know someone in a wheelchair, it’s never the same as when talking to anybody else. It’s the small things that I miss when I have to use the chair. Being able to walk and talk and window shop, not drawing a lot of attention, not having to think about access at all, greater choice (being able to sit anywhere you choose in a restaurant and not at the one or two spaces where you’ll fit).
Preferring the silver lining over the cloud, I would much rather think that the reason why people try harder to communicate with someone in a wheelchair is because they sense the presence of these barriers and want to help overcome them. People are social and most people that I deal with still have a personal sense of social responsibility. Every time I start to feel a little annoyed at being treated differently, I try to remind myself that I am different. Being in a wheelchair is different than not being in a wheelchair and being treated differently doesn’t always come with questionable intentions or actions. I think people generally mean well and living in a world where people want to be helpful and useful, even when they go about it in the not always best of ways, is a vast improvement to living in a world where nobody cares and people have a complete disregard for others. Finding a middle ground, a point of balance is always very difficult and if the scale is going to tip one way, I’d much rather it tipped toward too much assistance offered rather than not enough.