If you will indulge me, I’d like to start with a question. In the past 12 months, while you were shopping, going to work, or aimlessly existing in public space, did a complete stranger put their hands on you, announce that “it’s no bother at all” and start to push you erratically and in the wrong direction?
If your answer was no, congratulations; you probably don’t use a wheelchair. I hope you’re enjoying the wheel-less lifestyle; it’s not for me, but some people seem to like it.
And if you answered yes, then you probably already know that we need to talk about able-bodied people pushing wheelchair users without asking them first.
I understand where the instinct to help comes from, I promise.
We are told again and again in our culture that a kind and caring person is one who helps disabled people on the street. And we all want to be kind and caring people. But here is an actual disabled person telling you that it is a whole lot more complicated than that. Here is an actual disabled person asking you to understand how it feels to be the one that you all want to help.
Because I can’t stand when someone other than myself is in control of my chair. I get a knot in my stomach and a crack in my voice as I say, “No, no, no, I’m grand, thank you, no, no, it’s all right, I can manage, no thank you, no,” because yes, it can take a lot of insisting to get you pesky bipeds to let go of those handles.
I feel belittled when people push me, and I feel indignant. I’ve worked hard for my independence, I think. I’ve had to train and strengthen my body for years to be able to move freely and easily around hills, kerbs and potholes. I bristle at the suggestion that I am reliant on the kindness of strangers.
And part of me wants to end the column here.
Part of me wants to finish with a simple message of pushing wheelchair users = bad.
But that’s not the whole story. Because I have been reliant on the kindness of strangers.
During snowmageddon, it took me 30 minutes and seven kind strangers to make the five-minute journey from my apartment to my 46A bus stop. As you may have gathered, I have a tendency to be a little bit stubborn (read: I can be a macho idiot who won’t ask for help when I need it). So, if none of those kind strangers offered to help dig me out of a snowdrift that day, I would have waited there five days for the snow to melt.
I did not feel brilliant about the whole thing, as being stuck somewhere and being fussed over by a large group of people are pretty high on my list of Very Bad Things That I Do Not Like. But I was grateful for these people’s kindness. Because I needed their kindness that day, and also because kindness is – and I know I’m saying something radical here, so bear with me – good. Idealist that I am, I think our society would be a better place if everybody was a little bit kinder to each other.
And again, I wish this is where the story ended. But one of those kind strangers, after taking time out of their day to help me, turned to me and told me that I was "great to be out and about". I know that this was a well-meaning comment; again, they had just helped me out of a snowdrift. But it was also an ableist comment, symptomatic of an ableist society. It shouldn't be a surprise to people that we occasionally leave our houses. And if able-bodied people were a little bit less surprised that we are people who exist in public, maybe they'd be a little less apathetic about just how bad Ireland is at providing equal access. Kindness alone does not build ramps or install accessible bathrooms or keep lifts properly serviced.
The only thing that I can say for certain is that people shouldn’t touch people without asking for their consent. What seems harmless or appropriate to you may feel like a crossed boundary to someone else. That’s the hard line I can offer between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Beyond that, this stuff is messy. Sometimes kindness can be tinged with condescension.
Sometimes helping somebody is brilliant, but respecting somebody is better.
Platform Series: Ferdia MacAonghusa
1) How'd you like to be pushed around?
2) These are not my best days
3) Do something positive for the disabled
4) Our disabled bodies are different
5) Heard about the fella in a wheelchair?
6) I'm not bad for experiencing depression
7) I've finally found a way to be free
8) How about a job?
9) A defence of identity politics
10) Becoming disabled radicalised me