Behind The Mirror - Freedom On Wheels












Freedom On Wheels

Not many things these days have as much stigma attached to them as the wheelchair. A fairly simple structure of metal and plastic can strike fear into the hearts of the sick, pity into the hearts of the healthy and disdain into the hearts of the narrow-minded. It's acceptable to use if you cannot work your legs at all, but if you use it because you can't walk too far, then you're just giving in, beginning to see yourself as a disabled person. And that's wrong, apparently.

When I got sick initially, the first thing that was seriously affected was my ability to walk. I shuffled along slowly, aware of a weakness in my legs and a dizziness that threatened my ability to stand up. After I fell over a few times, I began to use a walking stick, which helped immensely. It helped me balance, and gave me extra support. I thought that would be ok. I still couldn't walk far, but I could make it to the shops if I needed to, and I could handle stairs fairly well. But I continued to deteriorate, and, all too soon, I couldn't walk around shops, I couldn't venture outside.

I had to make a choice. I could get something that would allow me to go out shopping and into town for a while, that would give me at least some degree of freedom and help me to enjoy life. Or I could hole myself up in my flat until I got better, never going out, never seeing the sun. Seems to be a fairly easy choice, doesn't it? Well, no. I wasn't prepared for the backlash from those I knew, from my family, from my own mind.

The first time I mentioned the idea of getting a wheelchair, I was greeted with disbelief. It hadn't even occured to anyone other than my boyfriend. Wheelchairs are for people that are paralysed or are recovering from an operation in hospital. That's all. No-one else needs one. Particularly not this teenage girl who looks for all the world like a 'normal' person. After I explained my reasons - the freedom, the ability to have something resembling a life - then the concern started to show. Why did I want to see myself as a disabled person? Didn't I think I would come to rely on it and be afraid to try? Was I really just giving up? I realised then that, however much people said they believed I was ill, they didn't really understand. If they thought that I wasn't disabled, they didn't get it. I am disabled - it's as simple as that. And I'm severely disabled, too. I just look healthy. It wasn't a question of seeing myself as a person in a wheelchair - it was that I actually needed one if I wanted to go outside. And afraid to try? I rely on my wheelchair, yes. It gives me a level of freedom that wouldn't be remotely possible otherwise. I long to be able to walk again, though. I long to go out into the forests and mountains again, but nature tends not to be wheelchair friendly. I am sick. Very sick. Not trying doesn't come into it - no-one would say that to someone who was paralysed, so why should it be different for me? How on earth was trying to have a life giving up? Didn't anyone understand that I was trying to get as much out of life as I could?

Even now, people act like me not using the wheelchair is a worthy goal. It is, if I don't need it anymore. Health is more important to me, though. I'm not going to stop using the wheelchair before I'm ready just because I don't want to be seen as disabled. I'm not going to risk my health because some people are uncomfortable seeing me in a wheelchair. If they can't see that I'm just the same in the wheelchair as I am when I'm lying on the sofa, then that's their problem. I have enough to deal with without them putting more pressure on me.

For all that, though - it's hard for me too. I sometimes feel less than I am when I'm in the wheelchair. If I see people I used to know before I got sick, then I'll generally hide, but that's more because I hate the fact that they look at me with pity because I'm in a wheelchair. I am ashamed of what I've become, but the wheelchair isn't part of that. It's that I need one, that I'm so sick I can't look after myself. I am ashamed of it because I had so many plans, and now I'm a shell of who I used to be. But those are my own insecurities, and have little to do with the wheelchair. Other people's reaction don't help, but I'll deal with them in another essay.

Is it really so difficult to see a wheelchair as a tool? It is a useful item that allows me freedom. Why shouldn't I love it for what it gives me, rather than see it as a symbol of what I have lost? It gives me back some of those abilities I used to have and for that I am grateful. I am the symbol of what I've lost, not the wheelchair. It is a symbol of what I could have if I can just adapt to my new life with all its difficulties and wonders, if I can just stop worrying about other people's prejudices and see that I could have a better life if I am willing to make the changes. The wheelchair is one change I'm sticking with.


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