“Did you rob it off a Dalek?”

Many years ago when I worked in childcare, I had a boss that used a wheelchair. One afternoon, she was speaking to the mother of a six-year old girl when the daughter interrupted.
Is it fun?” the girl asked.
Is what fun?” the boss replied.
Being in a wheelchair?” the girl continued, “Only, it looks kinda fun.

The mother gave an audible gasp.
Tabitha,” she hissed, “You can’t say that sort of thing!

The staff exchanged discomfited looks and suppressed embarrassed smiles but the boss, ignoring us all, turned to look Tabitha right in the eye.
Sometimes it’s fun,” she told the girl seriously, “like how I can go really fast down steep hills or how I always get my own seat even when other people have to stand. But when a building only has steps, or I can’t carry things, or I can’t reach a high shelf then it isn’t so much fun anymore.

Tabitha thought deeply for a moment with her head on one side.
Yes!” she said finally, “I can see how that would be annoying.
With a satisfied nod, she headed for the door, leaving her mum to offer frantic apologies in her wake.

It was an important question,” the boss assured Tabitha’s mother, “and now she knows the answer she’ll better understand what other wheelchair users deal with when she meets them in future.

Once the mother was out of earshot, a colleague commented how well the boss had handled an awkward situation.
Trust me,” the boss replied, “that wasn’t awkward. Awkward is when adults are too scared to ask what they’re obviously thinking so they ignore me to my face and then stare at my back when they think I can’t see them.

Impressed with her attitude, her words were to have a lasting impression on me.

Now disabled myself, it is commonplace to encounter adults that won’t meet my eye but will stare at my back when they think I can’t see them. I have met parents who would rather carry a push-chair up a flight of stairs than wait for a lift while their baby chattered to me, or have seen parents smack or scold their children simply for offering to hold open a door. Some adults think it is OK to move me out of their way like an abandoned shopping trolley, while others won’t sit near me in a waiting room or leave the room completely rather than make conversation with a wheelchair user.

I never imagined in twenty-first century Britain this sort of behaviour was still so widespread. It makes me wonder what sort of offences I have been responsible for over the years when dealing with disabled people.

That is why, like my old boss, I find it so refreshing when kids have the guts to just ask what they’re thinking. It breaks the awkward silence that no one knows how to fill. It shows that they’re interested and that they aren’t afraid of me. It demonstrates their willingness to try to understand my disability so they’ll be better informed when they meet other disabled people in the future. I sometimes wish adults would ask questions too if it would help break down whatever mental barrier makes them feel so uncomfortable around me.

So when a neighbour recently asked whether I’d had to take a driving test to own an electric wheelchair, I wasn’t offended. I was as surprised as he was to discover I could drive on public roads without first having to prove my fitness to do so.

When an elderly lady asked how long I’d ‘been like that then’, I wasn’t offended, because (despite her politically incorrect language) her question clearly stemmed from genuine concern rather than from voyeurism.

And when a five-year old, clutching a sonic-screwdriver, ran over to ask if I’d ‘robbed’ my chair off a Dalek, I wasn’t offended; I told him if the other Daleks came looking for me he’d have to use his sonic-screwdriver to get rid of them.

Now I cannot speak for all disabled people and I’m by no means advocating that you start accosting strangers in the street with inappropriate questions about their sex lives or toileting habits (any question too intimate to ask an able-bodied person will be equally inappropriate to ask of disabled people too). As a general rule however, if the answer to a question will help you relate to my situation or feel more comfortable around my disability, I’d far rather you asked than refused to speak at all, or pretended not to stare behind my back.

So long as your question stems from a genuine desire to understand my disability, I can almost guarantee that I won’t be offended.

So, any questions?

My motorised chair “Dave Ross” (named for Davros, the fictitious creator of the Daleks) with manual chair for comparison.

My motorised chair “Dave Ross” (named for Davros, the fictitious creator of the Daleks) with manual chair for comparison.

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This entry was posted in Hidden Disability, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to “Did you rob it off a Dalek?”

  1. Mia says:

    I am a Fm/CFS sufferer myself, but I don’t need to use a wheelchair yet. But, I relate to your frustrations about people, especially adults, not asking the difficult questions. I have another blogging friend in the UK who suffers from ME. She is Tanya Marlow and she blogs at Thorns and Gold. Yes, children is often so uncomplicated and honest.
    Blessings to you, dear one
    Mia

    • Thank you. I think people are sometimes even more reluctant to ask questions when a disability is less visible and yet hidden disabilities are even more important for people to be aware of because the problems facing people are far less obvious. Tanya’s blog was one of the first I was ever aware of and one of the inspirations for launching my own blog – she writes very powerfully about some difficult issues.

  2. nicolanoo says:

    I have Cerebral Palsy myself and I don’t mind when children ask me questions, it’s how they learn. I was once stopped by a child in the supermarket when I was on my walking frame (I was only a couple of years older than him) and all he said was “excuse me, but why have you got that?” his family were embarassed and tried to get him to walk away, but he stood his ground and waited for me to answer. He didn’t see a problem in asking me the question and neither did I.

    • I have had similar experiences. It is often adults that have a problem with asking questions and yet rarely children that cause offence. Thanks for stopping by. I really enjoyed having a look around your blog.

  3. Sally says:

    Indeed a refreshing approach. I used a wheelchair for the first time this year so that I could go to Crufts to see my daughter compete in agility with her JR terrier. It was a tough one for all of us – but I was actually surprised by the kind reception I got from everyone I met. Friends who were also going were alerted in advance and were simply ace. My daughter took it all in her stride and hubby coped with his usual dose of dry humour. The Agility Team that my daughter and her dog were part of came 4th and the indignity of the wheelchair was very much worth it!

    However I have now invested in a Travelscoot http://www.travelscoot.eu and this is so much more independent for me when out and about. Kids think it’s an electric trike and quite a few folk don’t quite realise it’s a mobility aid! Just thought I’d mention it in case others are interested.
    http://sallysewssometing.blogspot.co.uk/

  4. Sally says:

    Indeed a refreshing approach. I used a wheelchair for the first time this year so that I could go to Crufts to see my daughter compete in agility with her JR terrier. It was a tough one for all of us – but I was actually surprised by the kind reception I got from everyone I met. Friends who were also going were alerted in advance and were simply ace. My daughter took it all in her stride and hubby coped with his usual dose of dry humour. The Agility Team that my daughter and her dog were part of came 4th and the indignity of the wheelchair was very much worth it!

    However I have now invested in a Travelscoot and this is so much more independent for me when out and about. Kids think it’s an electric trike and quite a few folk don’t quite realise it’s a mobility aid! Just thought I’d mention it in case others are interested.

    • Thank you. I’m glad you were enable to enjoy your day out. Once you get over the initial embarrassment of needing a wheelchair the benefits definately outweigh the indignity. I am always careful when choosing a wheelchair to find one that looks as ‘cool’ as possible. My electric wheelchair draws a lot of stares from kids, not because of my disability but just because I have a very impressive set of wheels that kids all want a better look at. It always makes me smile when someone tells me how awesome my chair is.

      • Sally says:

        🙂 Sorry for leaving 2 replies… the first one didn’t seem to work at the time. I thought it might be the links – so I removed them to try again! Seems both went through! 😉

  5. knittedfog says:

    Thanks for this piece about wheelchair use. My friends and I went to the Tate Modern and called for a meal, the waitress who came to seat us said: “That’s 2 wheelchairs and 3 adults”! I only had words for the management after a couple of hours of getting over the shock.

    • Wow. I don’t really know what to say to that. I’d like to assume she was just mentally counting chairs and it was a slip of the tongue but it goes to the top of my list of what not to say about people in wheelchairs.

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