Disability 101: Elderly people have different needs
January 29, 2008
I recently was in a conversation with a woman in our community regarding my assertion in my first column that I would rather not have people ask me if they can push my wheelchair when there is no obvious need for help. The woman was discussing my assertion in relation to her closest experience, her father.
“My father has to use a wheelchair now,” she told me. “He’s just too proud to ask for help with his chair but I know he needs it.”
“How old is your father?” I asked, knowing that this woman must be a similar age as me.
OK guys, here’s the thing: I am not elderly. True, my daughter and son often insist that I’m rather old, but at 45, I’m really not. It bothers me to be compared to someone who is elderly.
Just because I use a wheelchair and a 76-year-old uses a wheelchair, it doesn’t mean we have the same issues. We don’t. My heart is strong and healthy. I don’t even have high blood pressure. My lungs are clear and strong. Though my muscles in my legs aren’t much to speak of, the muscles in my arms are killers. I still have half my life left.
I do not claim to speak for senior citizens because I am not a senior citizen. I don’t know if an elderly person would want you to always offer help in pushing their wheelchair or not. You would have to ask a senior citizen and see what they say.
A related incident happened a while ago. I was in line at the checkout at the grocery store behind a woman and her preschool age daughter. The child was curious about me and my wheelchair, as children usually are. And please let me note at this point that I welcome children’s curiosity and encourage them to have a conversation with me.
This child asked her mother about my wheelchair and her mother started to explain. We were off to a great start. But then mom made a comment to her daughter that just wasn’t true. She told her daughter that I was fragile.
Let’s see … I was once able to do a face-plant with my mono-ski. Tricky but possible.
Even more impressive, on the same day I did an end-over-end somersault on my mono-ski. It was a rough day of skiing but no broken bones, no pulled muscles. I wasn’t even sore. I’ve rolled my handcycle before. It kind of freaked my instructor out but I came up laughing. Got a couple bruises but that was that. I’m not fragile.
Yes, some people who use wheelchairs are fragile. Some people who use wheelchairs are elderly. But some of us are not and it’s discouraging when we are thought of as fragile and compared to the elderly.
The key, once again, is not to stereotype. Every person who uses a wheelchair is different. We all have different situations, different needs, and different personalities. I don’t claim to speak for every person in a wheelchair.
I’m just telling you about my experiences. Rather than assuming I am just like your 76-year-old father or your great-aunt Bertha or the guy you know on a respirator, please realize that I am a whole different person with a whole different situation. Rather than assume, get to know me as a person. Get to know my experiences, my hopes and my dreams.