I’m working on a show this month. A great show. “Good Kids” by Naomi Iizuka. (While a great show, some caution if you wish to read/see it. Trigger warning for sexual assault.) In the show, there’s a character named Deirdre who is in a wheelchair. The show isn’t about her, not at all, though towards the end of the show we do learn her Tragic Backstory of how she ended up in the chair. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.
We’re just working on table reading right now, so we aren’t doing any blocking or staging of the show, but our director brought in the wheelchair today. When I walked in, rehearsal had already been going for about an hour and the actor playing Deirdre was hanging out in the wheelchair. Nothing wrong with this. Seriously, nothing. Yet, I was angry. Why? I have no idea. I don’t know.
I spent some time using wheelchairs this past fall and winter. Not for the reason most people associate with wheelchairs: total paralysis of the legs. I just got tired and would be in a lot of pain in I stood for long periods of time or walked long distances. So, when I went to the British Museum, or spent time at the airport, I was in a wheelchair. Yes, it was a choice. I didn’t have to be in the chair. I could have made the decision to not go to the museum or to just take loads of ibuprofen and deal with the resulting pain from standing so long. But I made the decision to be in a wheelchair so my friend and I could enjoy the museum and not have to completely change our plans because of my illness.
And that choice confused a lot of people.
“You don’t need a wheelchair! Save that for people who actually need it!”
“If you’re so uncomfortable with the attention, just walk.”
“Why do you care so much about what other people think?”
And that’s the ting. No one actually said anything to me when I was in the wheelchair. But they didn’t have to. I’ve never before felt so inconspicuous and conspicuous at the same time. Lots of people looked at me, but no one would make eye contact. They would make sympathetic noises and expressions towards my friend who had to push the chair when my arms got tired, but would stand in the middle of the doorway so I would get stuck behind them, just trying to get through.
Going back to the beginning of this post: the actors playing around in the wheelchair. Why did that bug me so much?
I think it’s because to them, that wheelchair is just a toy, a prop. Something they could fool around in, wheel themselves around the theatre department for fun, not having to worry about making it through doorways or bathrooms, or worrying about having to justify why they’re using the chair at any moment. Because to them, it’s a joke. I don’t think they believe needing a wheelchair is a joke. They’re good people and they care about others. They just don’t have to think about that.
And that’s what I think is bugging me so much. It’s not something everyone has to think about. Until they do.
I’m at a point now where I can walk for longer distances and stand for longer periods of time without feeling as fatigued or being in as much pain. And I’m lucky. I’m lucky to have such an understanding Physical Therapist and a Psychotherapist who helps me work through my frustration and grief.
It’s all fun and games when your friend pushes you down the hallway in a prop wheelchair. Because you don’t have to worry about the judgmental stares. The worries of not being “disabled enough”. Wheeling yourself around even though your arms are burning and you can feel the blisters forming on your hands and you know this will hurt tomorrow but not wanting to bother your friend and be so dependent as needing someone to push you around.
And that’s okay. I don’t want you to. I’m glad this is fun for you. It just isn’t for the rest of us.