Ask a Woman in a Wheelchair

by Caitlin Wood

Are the bathroom stalls ever big enough? They rarely seem big enough, especially at airports. How much does it enrage you at this point?

Tiny bathroom stalls are definitely a drag, especially when you have a bladder the size of a grandma like me and gotta gooooo. Plus I like to stay ‘drated (that’s rap slang I invented for ‘hydrated,’ let’s make this a thing, ladies!) so I pee 30 times a day. Airports are usually okay (unless it’s JFK), but there are NO ACCESSIBLE BATHROOMS on airplanes! That enrages me. A lot.

What are the most obvious ways in which people can not make your life more difficult on a daily basis? Do people steal your parking spaces and then make apologetic shrugging gestures with any regularity?

I think the most annoying/difficult thing nondisabled people do on the daily is make assumptions about what my life is like or what I must be like, i.e., I get a lot of overenthusiastic, condescending smiles/words of unnecessary encouragement (“you’re so inspirational!”) when I’m trying to do basic things like buy tampons. You can tell people are thinking ‘I’m gonna go out of my way and brighten that sad crippled girl’s day!’ when the reality is I’m just trying not to murder them. Many nondisabled people seem to think that because I can’t walk, I can’t do anything (which is way weird and very insulting), therefore my completion of extremely mundane tasks blows. their. minds. For instance, I put my glasses back on at the dentist after taking them off for a root canal (I just threw that last part in to elicit reader sympathy) and the mid-twenties hygienist looked into my eyes, sighed, and said ‘you’re AMAZING.’ Umm really? That’s ‘amazing?’ If I’d been capable of thinking clearly through my paroxysm of indignation I would’ve responded with an ornery retort, something along the lines of ‘if you like that, you should watch me wipe after using the bathroom — it’s INCREDIBLE!’ Instead I did what I often do in these situations, which is: perform a Liz Lemon ‘over the top eye-roll,’ bury my exasperation deep down in my solar plexus, and wait for it to erupt later under more awkward and embarrassing conditions.

That particular ‘amazing’ comment was not an isolated event, and happens fairly regularly. Recently, I pushed the button in an elevator, which was also deemed ‘amazing.’ What’s so upsetting about these seemingly glib remarks is that they reveal the insidious consequences of pervasive cultural stereotypes about disability (namely: to be disabled means you must be incompetent); more personally, it exposes society’s lowered expectations of me as a disabled woman. Because if putting on a pair of glasses or pushing a button is an achievement deserving of a verbal pat on the back (it’s not), what sort of legitimateaccomplishments do people believe I’m capable of? Evidently my options are limited. For the record I don’t think the people making these ridiculous comments are bad people. In fact I think they’re ‘trying to be nice,’ but severely misguided, with no awareness that what they consider to be complimentary is actually denigrating and otherizing. An apt comparison would be a white person telling a black person they’re articulate or well-spoken. What one person considers praise, another labels as ‘worthy of a melodramatic, audible groan.’ Also, strangers in general just feel comfortable asking me really personal questions (“What happened to you?!” “Were you in an accident?” “Can you have sex?” which even at 30 years old I’m still shocked by. (Answers: Does it matter?, No, and YES — ALL THE TIME. I’m actually having sex as I’m typing now — it’s amazing.) I don’t have to deal with parking space-stealers as I rely on Portland’s ever-entertaining public transport. Did you know wheelchair vans are like $50K? Like most non-Huxtables I can’t afford that. I just keep it real on the bus.

Are your arms RIPPED?

I can assure you that nothing about my body is ripped. I use a powerchair (electric) not a pushchair, so my arms get most of their daily exercise from lifting glasses of vodka sodas to my mouth — the official drink of choice for disabled women everywhere. I move my chair via a joystick, which kinda resembles a nipple on a breastfeeding woman (jealous?). The joystick is loose, though, and keeps falling on the ground so I’ve been fortunate to have an excuse to yell ‘my nipple fell off!’ repeatedly. This has been a fun thing to cry out loudly in public.

Pet peeves? Thoughts on the burgeoning activism community and the Internet?

People asking me intrusive questions (“what’s wrong with you?”) and not minding their own beeswax is probably my biggest pet peeve. At least in terms of disability stuff. I’m, shall we say, moody, so my list of grievances runs the gamut. I don’t discriminate, y’all. Another is being subjected to the same tired, inane “jokes” over and over against my will. If I had a nickel for every time I heard ‘ya gotta license to drive that thing?’ ‘what’s your speed limit?’ I’d have a shitload of nickels. Those jokes aren’t offensive to me as a disabled person, but rather as someone who understands that jokes should actually be funny. It seems strangely similar to what TV stars who get famous for a catchphrase must endure when they go out in public. Strangers yell out the catchphrase to the celebrity (“I’m Rick James, bitch!”) ad nauseam believing not only are they saying something hilarious, but they’re the first ones to think of it. So, I guess what I’m saying is I’m the disabled Dave Chappelle.

Lack of accessible housing, lack of jobs, and peoples’ weird ableist attitudes are of course gigantic issues that bum me out. It can feel pretty isolating. There’s a pointed emphasis on green, eco-friendly living here in Portland, yet it’s incredibly challenging to find accessible housing. I’ve witnessed a huge influx in property development here over the past decade, yet it took me literally years to locate the apartment I live in now because they aren’t building accessible, affordable units. They may be eco-friendly and hip, but they’re likely not accessible. This makes zero sense. Considering the vast number of aging baby boomers who’ll need accessible housing in the very near future, this problem is going to become glaringly evident.

In terms of lack of jobs, people with disabilities face significant discrimination when looking for employment, and this often comes down to attitudinal barriers against hiring disabled employees. While the recession has been cruel to the general workforce, it has been even worse for the disabled community. In June, only 32% of people with disabilities were employed (contrasted with 77% of nondisabled people), while 80% of disabled people said they wanted to work. And if you’re lucky enough to have a job, you often have to deal with ableism on the job. So, what exactly is ableism?

Ableism is prejudice against people with disabilities, and like every other -ism, can take on many gnarly forms. This ranges from negative attitudes to the dearth of accessible housing, denying someone a job due to an impairment, and targeting someone for a crime because they have a disability. At my previous job (which was ironically a disability organization), I endured a healthy heaping of ableism, to the point where I would relay work stories to my ablebodied friends and they straight up didn’t believe me! This included (among many examples): being singled out and humiliated by my boss in front of all my co-workers when he serenaded me with ‘no one wants to be a crip,’ (this was done to the tune of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ — I shit you not), our office moving into an inaccessible building where disabled people (like the ones we were ostensibly supposed to serve plus several employees) couldn’t get through the tiny front doors, or reach the elevator buttons if you were in a wheelchair because they were really high, or use the inaccessible bathrooms for over three months. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. I can’t even get into all of it, but I like to believe that the queen bee Lil Kim was correct in opining ‘karma’s a motherfucker.’ I can only expend so much energy distressed by ableism. And ableism is distressing, and wears down your psyche. Since I can’t hulk out in every situation where I’m being discriminated against, I can only hope that the universe will take care of some of the haters for me. But believe me when I tell you, it’s hard out there for a gimp.

Luckily not everyone’s a bonehead, though! Online activism has definitely made a positive impact on my life in allowing me to connect with other people from all over the world interested in disability rights and disability arts and culture. Blending art and activism can definitely achieve powerful results. There’s a lot of interesting and creative endeavors springing up. My favorite groups are ADAPT, Bay area disability art collective Sins Invalid, and a new Facebook photo campaign called ‘This is what disability looks like’ that’s rad.

Is dating other people in wheelchairs more common than dating people without wheelchairs?

No — I’ve never actually dated another wheelchair user, though I have dated dudes with impairments. That didn’t help us get along, though. Maybe I have an unexamined ablebody fetish? I certainly see a huge appeal in dating someone like you who shares in your experiences and ‘gets it,’ especially if they’re supercute like those Murderball guys. Instead I always seem to date men who’ve had zero previous exposure to disability, which results in lots of awkward, silly situations. Where’s MY romantic comedy, Hollywood?

Randomly: are wheelchairs getting better? It seems like there’s a huge opportunity for improvement, like the wheelchair equivalent of Pistorius’s legs?

Oh my god I think about this ALL THE TIME! There is a gigantic opportunity to make wheelchairs not only function better but also to LOOK COOL but nobody’s doing it. At least not that I’m aware of. Why can’t my wheelchair be a working piece of badass art? And maybe waterproof for Christ’s sake? I actually gave my old broke-down chair to a guy in town who’s an engineer and builds bikes. He was going to tinker with it and create some crazy indoor/outdoor hybrid wheelchair vehicle using ummm … science. So other than that one guy, nobody else I know is taking advantage of the market. Somebody needs to get on that, stat.

I imagine there’s a pretty tight network of Ladies with Wheelchairs that exists online or something? Tell me if that’s correct and then tell me if you talk about how some cities are better for you to live in than others? Like, is it just generally accepted that parts of NYC, for example, are inaccessible? Or are there some wheelchair users who like to show off by proving there’s nowhere they can’t live comfortably? You know, they’re also the ones who never take vacation days.

There’s definitely a growing number of disability networks online, some which are geared toward women specifically. Most of them are cross-disability, though, and not strictly just for wheelies. Shoutout to the Gimpgirl Community, the now defunct (which kills me) but archived Feminists with Disabilities, and the BBC’s Ouch! podcast with the hysterical Liz Carr. In terms of cities, yes, some are definitely better to navigate than others. The rule of thumb seems to be the older the city (meaning East Coast), the harder it is to get around. I visited NYC earlier this year (where I accidentally almost got Tocarra from America’s Next Top Model hit by a taxi, but that’s another story) and saw exactly two wheelchair users in the entire city. I was pretty blown away but can’t say I was totally surprised given the fact that 1) most of the subways are inaccessible and 2) there’s like 50 wheelchair-accessible cabs. I don’t know how disabled people live there. Juxtapose that with the UK, where supposedly all taxis are legally required to be wheelchair accessible. What it’s like once you exit the taxi, however, I don’t know. I’ve only been to Canada. Sadface. I’m in Portland, which does pretty well minus the lack of accessible housing and jobs. And yes, there are always martyrs who have something to prove and/or need to show off! I’m most definitely not one of them. I’d much rather be sipping a cocktail, comfortable in the knowledge that I have an accessible place to pee.

Caitlin Wood is a dirty south transplant currently living in Portland, Oregon. She is a writer and co-founder of the disability and pop culture website When not watching terrible TV shows, she enjoys happy hour, incorrectly filling out crossword puzzles, occasionally making music and living vicariously through hardcore rap lyrics.