In Kelly’s Words – Normalizing Disability Through Visibility
Why do kids stare at something? Because it’s different or they are curious about it. But also because they don’t know yet that they shouldn’t stare. As adults, we call it rude to stare, but when we see something different we aren’t any less interested in it, we just know better. But if something is mundane or old news or perfectly ordinary, we usually won’t notice it or have the urge to stare.
People who use wheelchairs are rare, so often get stared at by little kids. But if I’m not in my wheelchair, I otherwise blend right in. One of my favorite examples of this is when I’m getting on an airplane. Before I load, everyone is in the terminal waiting to get on, me in my wheelchair, and very often kids stop and stare or look at me and my chair with curiosity. But then I get on the plane, my wheelchair is nowhere to be seen (they store it below the plane with the luggage), and I’m sitting in a seat like anyone else. Kids walk down the aisle and don’t look twice at me, I blend right in with everyone else.
One of my goals in life is to make having a spinal cord injury (SCI) and living in a wheelchair more “normal”. The more visibility and representation people with disabilities have the less we are looked at as different. The ripple effect of this is huge, from reduction of stigma generally, to belief in one’s own abilities after sustaining a spinal cord injury, to the societal belief and expectations of what someone with a disability is capable of. Rinse and repeat.
This idea is so important, that it is worked into our KBF 5-year strategic plan. A lot of what we do at the KBF has a direct and incredibly positive impact on someone with an SCI but also has a secondary impact on the visibility and normalization of disabilities.
Last week my sister-in-law asked me to speak with her at the University of Vermont Medical School about spinal cord injuries. She is an emergency room physician and was presenting to residents, med students, and other physicians about spinal cord injuries and how to care for someone with an SCI when they come into the ER. She asked if I would join her to add a little bit of color and real-world experience. I love doing this because it both humanizes a medical topic, but more importantly, it begins to normalize the idea of seeing who uses a wheelchair, and these healthcare professionals start to see me as the same as anyone else (with certain specific medical complications that are important for them to learn about).
I’m under no illusions that people who use wheelchairs will start to completely blend into society. We, of course, will always stick out because we use a piece of equipment and we’ll always be in the minority of those who move through the world. But my hope is to foster as much actual inclusion (“normalcy”) as we do logistical inclusion (ramps, door widths, etc.).
This starts with representation in mainstream media and advertising, as well as in events like marathons, Olympics, and tennis tournaments, and even places like theater and music concerts. But starting locally is also incredibly important. Bringing speakers who have disabilities to schools and companies allows people to see someone different and ask questions in a safe space.
I take all the opportunities I get to show what is possible for someone with a disability, whether it’s speaking at our local medical school, or answering questions from the kids who are curious about my wheelchair. Many in the disabled community see it as an unfair burden we carry, which I understand. My perspective has always been acceptance and action. For reading this, I hope that next time you see someone in a wheelchair it feels more normal for you and them.