The Story a Wheelchair Tells

In early April, one of my favorite comedians and cultural critics, Hannah Gadsby, published an excellent essay in Vanity Fair calling out successful men who brag about not caring about what clothes they wear. She identifies Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Albert Einstein as representative of the type of guy that claims “they’re too busy doing important things to think about something as silly as clothing.”

Of course, Gadsby recognizes how this is a sexist double standard. “When a man announces to the world that he wears a restricted or pared-down wardrobe, all he has done is taken expected behavior, heightened it, and then confused it with an interesting idea.” 

Seeing clothing as silly is a misogynistic attitude because we live in a world in which women cannot take the same orientation to their looks. “…for women that means you are expected to never wear the same thing twice, and feel great about it, excited even. If you fail to do so, you may very well fail at qualifying at woman.”  To succeed, women are held to a much higher standard of physical appearance and then are told that such concerns as clothing are trivial. This is a classic no-win situation.

As a cis-gender, heterosexual male, I have myself fallen into this way of thinking many times.  I can just throw on any pair of slacks, any shirt, and any tie for the job interview. As long as I have done all my research about the organization to which I’m applying, I can sell myself in the right way. Right?

Well, this isn’t exactly true for men with physical disabilities. While we do not experience the kind of sexist double bind Gadsby describes, we ARE judged by how we look, often and harshly. All visibly disabled people are judged in this way. Much of the stigma we experience is driven by reactions to how we look. Just by entering a room, we often evoke pity. It is immediately presumed that we are suffering or in need of help, just by our mere visible presence in the world. 

Much of this stigma is the result of people’s reactions to the technology we use. For better or for worse, the technology we use helps tell a story about who we are, much in the same way that clothing is expressive. You are telling the world a different story depending on if you are seen driving a rusted out pickup truck vs a minivan vs a high-performance Italian sports car. That story isn’t always deliberately told and isn’t even always true, but it is told, nonetheless. This is why a lot of disabled people try to AVOID using assistive technology. They don’t like the story the technology tells other people. There are plenty of people who would benefit from canes, walkers, and wheelchairs, but refuse to be “seen like that.”

If this is all true, then it is actually very important how my wheelchair looks. It’s almost as important as how it functions. It’s not silly to want to roll into a class I am lecturing for the first time at the beginning of the semester and not want to be met with looks of pity. Of course, using a cool looking chair won’t eliminate these experiences, but it sure can help!  This is one of my favorite things about my Edge 3 Power Wheelchair.  Many power wheelchairs are overly medical looking and present their users as weak or fragile or pitiful. My power wheelchair looks like it has a rocket pack strapped to the back of it. Or, it looks like Optimus Prime’s nephew or something. I like the story it tells.

About Joe Stramondo: Joe is an assistant professor at San Diego University and is extremely active in the disability community. Joe uses an Edge 3 Power Wheelchair to maintain his mobility and independence. In his spare time, Joe strives to be the best father he can to his children. Click here to learn more about Joe.