I sat down too long one day - and then something happened


Your eyes stopped connecting with mine, but I expected that. After all, I was no longer on your level. Instead of being an Amazonian five foot ten inches, I was shorter - barely half your height, on wheels and a titanium frame. I expected that. What I did not expect was for everything else to change. I was no longer on your physical level, but neither was I on your level as a person. Why else would you think it was okay to treat me so differently? I finished my Christmas shopping, and my son watched me unpack my wheelchair into the car. You came up to me and wished me a Merry Christmas. I smiled and thanked you, and then you said, 'I'm always nice to people in wheelchairs. It is because I feel sorry for you.'


Why do you feel sorry for me?


I was buying asparagus, and a delightful small child came and asked me what 'fruit' that was. I told him it was asparagus, and we had an endearing conversation about the origins of 'sparrow-grass'. He was on my level, your son - and so I was confused when you came over and tried to pull him away. I tried to reassure you that he was just making conversation, but you weren't worried that he was annoying ME. 'No,' you said fiercely, pulling his arm, 'I do not let him talk to people in wheelchairs in case he catches a disease.'


Why do you think I'm contagious?


I was shopping, and you offered to unpack my scant ten items onto the conveyor belt. I refused, with a smile, but you insisted. 'I always help people in wheelchairs,' you said. Then, your unwanted help given, you asked why I used a wheelchair. And if I was paralysed. And a lot of other questions, sympathetically, not noticing that my monosyllabic answers were delivered between gritted teeth. My favourite question was in response to the news that I have six children. 'Are they all yours?' you asked, confusingly. And at the end of our conversation, you told me that you worked at the shop across the road and if I ever needed anything (a back rub? A personal loan?) I was welcome to come and see you.


Why must I be your good deed for the day?


I see it in your eyes every day, despite the fact that I know that most of you sit down, too. In office chairs with wheels, on sofas and in train carriages. Interestingly, if my leg was bandaged, you would not treat me as 'other'. You would laugh and ask me 'what I had done' to myself. You'd never ask me about my sex life, or my life expectancy, or the intensely private parts of myself that you now feel entitled to ask about. My sitting-down-ness did not give you permission to answer your questions, nor to accept rudeness or charity or pity - my sitting-down-ness did not give you permission to treat me as though I am no longer on your level, as though I am lesser.


I sat down, and it was as though I had sunk into a pit, or had been elevated to a pedestal. Neither true, neither real. I ceased to be a mother, a carer, an advocate who could advocate outside of my own lived experience - I ceased to be a shopper, or a driver, or an employee, or a member of the community. I became invisible - just because I sat down.


I sat down, and something changed forever.



A personal comment. Having spent 16 years in a chair: I hope the combativeness will pass quickly. People ask personal questions because they are uneasy. They don't know how to behave with people who sit down. I never minded the questions. People have different ways of acknowledging you - some are very uneasy. Not only because they don't know what to say but also because they don't know how it will be received. Still, they are acknowledging you. What I found worse is the people who assumed. They talk to the person behind the chair about you in the third person. You cease to exist or you can't think or speak because you can't walk. The waitperson who shows you to a table near the kitchen with the small children in case you drool or dribble.


I would say to the author - lose the attitude. Every time you put someone in their place you are taking away the impetus to help that another person in a chair may need. Try taking the initiative. If someone looks, speak to them. The weather will do. Let them know that you are a normal person who needs wheels to get around. You'd be surprised how many nice people there are - you included.