Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Top Ten Things that Annoy People in Wheelchairs

Recently the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation conducted a poll, which I took a part of, about the Top Ten Things that Annoy People in Wheelchairs. The following are the results:

1. Able-bodied people parking in accessible parking spaces 37%

2. Accessible bathroom stalls being used by an able-bodied person 12%

3. Talking over my head as if I'm not here 9%

4. Continuing to insist on helping me after I've said no thanks 8.3%

5. Congratulating me for things like going to the grocery store like it's worthy of an Olympic medal 6.1%

6. Strangers asking what happened to me 5.7%

7. Not inviting me to an event because you are protecting me from some frustration (let me figure it out) 5.3%

8. Patting me on my head. Don't. 5.0%

9. Holding on to the back of my chair so I can't move 4.4%

10. Speaking slowly to me because I'm in a wheelchair 3.5%

I tend to agree with this list on the whole. People that know me, have been out and about with me, or have read enough of this blog know that I would certainly have item #1 at the top of my list. I do find it interesting that so many others ranked it so far and above the rest as well. Handicapped parking annoyance was 37% and the next item was 12%, that’s quite a jump from #1 to #2.

As for the rest, given these particular items I would probably move #2 down further because I don't find a great deal of frustration with that one myself. Plenty of bathrooms have just one toilet stall that also doubles as the accessible one so there's no reason getting frustrated if it’s occupied by an able bodied person. Only when there are a whole handful of toilets and the only accessible one is being used, presumably because it's roomier, does that annoy me. It’s sort of akin to the “guy rule” that when using a public bathroom you don’t take the open urinal right next to another guy’s if it is at all possible that you can maintain an empty one between the two of you. Anyway, it’s not frustrating enough to make it number two on my list. I haven't seen it yet myself, but an able bodied person using an accessible toilet stall was a storyline of an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

Number 3 happens all the time so I would probably move that up to my #2. I can't tell you how many conversations with multiple people that I've been in over the years where people talk around and/or over me and don't make equal eye contact with me at all. A lot of time it's as if I am not even there. That gets beyond frustrating. It’s a phenomenon that I never experienced before I started using a wheelchair.

I would move #4 up a notch too because even though they mean well some people just don't take no for an answer. If I can do something by myself then I don’t want help. A few months ago I had to tell a grocery store lady no thanks I didn't need any help at least four times ("Are you sure? That's what I'm here for."), and even then she continued to linger nearby, in disbelief and waiting for me to change my mind, until I moved away from her to the next aisle. As strange as it might sound to some, shopping on my own like that can be a large matter of pride and independence.

Number 6 I might move up a bit because as open as I am about that kind of thing sometimes it just isn't appropriate to ask why I'm in a wheelchair. I've been asked in all kinds of different sets of circumstances and plenty of them have been just plain awkward. Like where it's obvious that I'm having a discussion with a friend or the like and someone else butts in because their curiosity overtook them. Related, it gets a little annoying how quick a lot of people are to bring forth an out of the blue anecdote about someone in their life who is in a "similar situation." Again, people mean well and want to compare notes, I understand that to a certain degree. But if someone had an obviously bad burn scar on half their face it is pretty much universally understood that it would be highly inappropriate to say to them, "Hey my sister burned herself really bad once." It’s been my experience that with a wheelchair related disability like mine it seems like some people lose that sense of appropriateness.

Number 9 I would probably drop off of this list because it's never happened to me. And with my power chair I wish good luck to whoever tries to hold my chair and stop me from moving anyway. I have had people sitting behind me at movie theaters rest their feet up against my chair or even on it. My wheelchair is not a footstool, etc. I don't think people realize that this thing is an extension of my body so I feel every tiny little external bump or tap.

Number 7 I would probably drop off the list too because it hasn't happened to me. Or, I suppose, if it has I wouldn't have known about it. But I doubt it’s ever been done deliberately. If anything, the opposite is true more often than not. That is to say that I get invited places that aren't accessible and people haven't factored that in whatsoever. When it’s people that aren’t involved with the disability world it’s only marginally annoying because they wouldn’t think of the accessibility factor, save for it being simple common sense. But when it’s family or friends that have put me in that position it definitely goes to a higher level of annoyance or frustration in the sense that I feel like they should have known better than to put me in that position in the first place. But that doesn’t occur much. Either way it can make for some awkward moments to be sure. If the inaccessibility is a no go the quickest solution is for me to either not go in the first place or leave once I discover that it won’t work out. But plenty of times people want to try and “make it work” somehow by fudging some semblance of accessibility, except “making it work” doesn't always work for me. For example, I might not want to be carried up or down a flight of stairs. Of course, that leads to putting me in the unenviable position of either doing something I’m not comfortable with to make it work or possibly ruining the fun and causing further collective embarrassment by not participating if I don’t want to make it work. Moreover, sometimes when people are so willing to help in a situation like that but you don’t want their help because you’re uncomfortable with it then you end up looking unappreciative to them because they don’t understand where you’re coming from. That’s always tough. But that’s a whole other topic to itself.

As for #10 I would either add or supplement the word "loudly" because I can't say that I've ever had people talk extra slowly to me because I'm in a wheelchair but there has been numerous times where people have talked extra loud to me because I am. I had a home health nurse that used to do that all the time and it drove me nuts. She talked at a normal volume with everyone else in the room but practically yelled at me. Some people just equate the wheelchair with a hearing problem.

So there you go, the top ten things that annoy people in wheelchairs and my specific take on a handful of them. In sharing this list I thought that it would offer some helpful understanding about these items from my/the disability perspective, and how some people need to be more mindful about reacting to people with different abilities and respect their space.

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