What not to say to a wheelchair user: “It’s a miracle!”

Wheelchair users experience a tyranny of comments, looks and physical actions from the general public. Often, these comments and actions are made without thinking. My personal experience found that often rude comments are hidden as jokes, which give wheelchair users a bad reputation when they then get upset over said joke.

My most recent experience happened on holiday in Wales. I am a part time wheelchair user, mainly using the aid on a bad day or as a preventative measure while out and about. My chronic illnesses of M.E and Fibromyalgia impact my ability to walk long distances without extreme fatigue and pain. Therefore, to allow me to visit the beautiful Welsh town of Tenby, my wheelchair was the best bet for a manageable and fun day.

Tenby itself is beautiful, a picturesque village with idyllic beaches, a lovely harbour , and plenty of little shops to browse. Using a wheelchair in a new place is always quite daunting, anxiety can sometimes take over and I become apologetic for the aid I need. The usual issues cropped up, with little shops being difficult to manoeuvre in the chair, but on a whole it was comfortably accessible.

While visiting Tenby, I was blessed with gorgeous sunshine. My family have a tradition of going on a boat trip while we are away, it is always the most anticipated day. Tenby offered a variety of trips, however we decided to do an island cruise. This cruise promised an hour of seal spotting and a guided tour of the local wildlife inhabited islands.

The crushing comment was made while booking that cruise, luckily I was unaware of the comment at the time. As a part-time wheelchair user I often have to stand to pay for things, the world really isn’t built to be accessible! As I stood from my chair to confirm and pay for the trip, a young man stood with friends slightly behind commented “It’s a miracle!”

It sounds harmless, perhaps even a cheeky joke, but it hurt. When my family told me I was angry, hurt and disappointed. I found myself wondering how I would have reacted had I heard the comment in the moment. Would I have brushed off the joke? Would I have tried to educate the man on the varied symptoms of chronic illness? Would I have been visibly upset?

I honestly don’t know how I would react. I know my sister felt angry on my behalf, claiming she would have snapped at the man for his comment. I fully appreciate her anger, after all it comes from a place of love, the need to protect me as her sister. However, when has anger ever solved anything? My parents had mixed feelings, offering jokes that could have been made. I could have turned around and yelled “Hallelujah!”, I wonder how the man would have taken that!

My head tells me I would have tried to educate the man, explaining a varied condition to try and allow him to make amends for a silly throwaway comment. However, I know deep down I probably would have stayed silent, avoiding confrontation and embracing the embarrassment the comment provoked.

It may sound silly to ponder how I would have reacted. After all, it is just one comment. However, that comment stayed with me for the rest of the day. I did my best to sit still in the chair, trying to avoid comments on the mobility of my legs. I made an effort to take my time when standing up, with my sister supporting me with her arm. These are things that would happen on a bad day, I would have to take my time and be careful with movements due to pain. However, that day was a good one, I was in manageable pain and was using the wheelchair as a preventative measure. That measure worked too, the next day I was well enough to do small things, a trip in the car. Whereas if I had walked all day, without the aid of my wheelchair, I would have suffered unmanageable pain and fatigue, leaving me bedbound for that day.

What I am hoping to convey in this post is that wheelchair users have varied mobility and health issues. Please try not to assume someone is faking or taking advantage of the aid, when they could simply be having a good day. Chronically ill individuals especially are grateful for the few and far between good days, please do not let a silly, careless comment dampen that day.

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