Access, Able Bodied Privilege & Disability (un)friendly toilets: My wheelchair revelations

Due to nasty foot fractures, for the last two months I’ve been getting around in a wheelchair. And it’s given me a newfound appreciation for what life is like with a mobility impairment. I’d like to preface this by saying how as an able bodied person, I do not presume to understand the experience of people who have long term mobility issues, the objective of this post is only to write about my experiences confronting my own privilege.

What surprised me about being in a wheelchair is the constant feeling that I’m not entitled to inhabit public spaces. Venturing outside is like being caught in the glare of a spotlight, you become accustomed to being stared at by (usually well meaning) strangers, their expressions a combination of curiosity and pity. As soon as you make eye contact with them, they look away, embarrassed to be caught staring. People have an implicit need to understand your story- What happened? Is it permanent? So young! So tragic! The weight of these unanswered questions is a heavy burden to carry every time you’re just popping out to buy muesli.

Bumping into friends and acquaintances was fraught in ways I didn’t expect. An interesting reaction I encountered was when people pretended the mobility issues didn’t exist. The only comparable experience I have is the supposedly ‘progressive’ viewpoint of racial colourblindness (‘I don’t see race’, ‘We’re all members of the human race’ etc).  Like colourblindness, ignoring my mobility impairment was a way of ‘liberal’ people dealing with their own discomfort around disability. It minimizes your experience, making you feel as though you’re ‘exaggerating.’ This reaction is often accompanied by a lack of empathy about the practical difficulties and restrictions that are inherent in wheelchair use.

I was also unprepared for the challenges of being at a physically lower level, when the only people at your height are children and other people in wheelchairs. It’s difficult not to feel infantilized when every interaction you have involves looking up to the person you’re talking to. It compounds the already frustrating feeling of being perceived as ‘fragile’ or ‘dependent.’ Golden rule: Sit down when you’re interacting with a person in a wheelchair for a prolonged period of time.

On the other hand, being in a wheelchair has also revealed the kindness and generosity of strangers. On one of my first (and only) solo expeditions, what I naively thought would be an easy journey from my house to the library, I was struggling, inching forward across the sloping asphalt, terrified of losing control and careening onto the road, when a tradie on his lunch break insisted on pushing me all the way to my destination. The same day, a university student I met outside the library helped me do my grocery shopping, saving me hours of death defying maneuvering in the precariously stacked aisles.

As an able bodied person, I normally do not give a second thought about going somewhere or doing what I feel like. But when you’re in a wheelchair, every minor task or expedition is a logistical labyrinth which requires meticulous planning. Your perspective shifts completely. Stairs, previously viewed as nothing but a glute workout/minor inconvenience when drunk and high heeled/site to launch slinkies suddenly became my worst nightmare. I gained an acute awareness of my surroundings, I was suddenly attuned to the width of every doorway, every crack in the pavement. I had always breezily assumed the inner city suburb I live in was disability friendly until my first day in a wheelchair, when I was confronted with endless stretches of sloping pavement. I was amazed when I realized that I couldn’t browse in my favourite bookstore because of the closely packed displays (this revelation came after I inadvertently triggered an avalanche of Paleo cookbooks and sent the staff into a panic spiral). This became a familiar pattern at every shop. As for restaurants… unless there was outdoor seating, I was usually greeted by apologetic shrugs. I can now appreciate that most places are not disability friendly.

Disabled toilets are a minefield. Finding one is challenging enough, but when you finally reach the promised land, it is often nothing more than an enlarged stall. Good luck pushing your wheelchair through the narrow external door (and I have a relatively petite wheelchair so I shudder to think how people with bulkier motorized chairs manage). And the stall itself is often so cramped that maneuvering yourself from the wheelchair onto the toilet is impossible unless you propel yourself using the handrail (with your presumably Schwarzenegger-esque arm strength). And this is the best case scenario. At home I had to be carried upstairs when I needed to use the bathroom, with my partner having to lower me onto the seat, and then wait outside till I was done. I have never felt so completely dependent- it was as though I’d reverted to early childhood. So I just used to minimizing my fluid intake to avoid the ordeal as much as possible. It gave me my first real insight into something disability activists have been saying for a long time: toilets are a political issue.

The last two months have been frustrating and prohibitive, but by forcing me to confront my able-bodied privilege, it has equipped me with a much greater sense of empathy and understanding of issues of access and the important of engaging with these issues. I would highly recommend reading/watching some of the amazing disability activists who are reshaping the narrative around disability- this TED Talk by the late Stella Young is a wonderful start.