I have a friend who uses a wheelchair. Our relationship was borne out of a time when I was his case manager. My job was to hook him up with, and pay for the services he needed to live well in his community. His biggest love in this world is the New York Yankees. When he found out that I am originally from New York, he decided I was definitely friend material. I met him when he was about 24 years old, and extremely frustrated with his life.
The two things that were bothering him most were that he wanted a girlfriend and hated not being able to walk. He wanted a different life than the one he was experiencing, and that was something I just couldn’t provide him with. We’d spend a lot of time bouncing around in conversation regarding the Bronx Bombers, dating, and his wheelchair.
I was very comfortable talking to him about the Yankees. He’s a bit of a history buff about the team, and would grill me about the championship team in the late 70’s. That’s when I was a BIG fan myself, and could answer all his questions accurately and confidently. The girlfriend thing was harder, but I had my own experiences with women to fall back on, so I wasn’t at a total loss. But when it came to talking about him being unable to walk, and how that made him feel, I’d get quieter and unsure of what to say. I don’t have a clue what that’s like other than conversations I’ve had with other wheelchair users.
There was one aspect of discussing his frustration around this issue that I became increasingly concerned with. He’d always refer to himself as “in a chair”; as though that was what was keeping him from having a girlfriend. I’m not someone who tries to tell people what they ought to do or think, but after a while I was finding myself wanting to address this mindset with him. I wasn’t at all certain how it would go if I brought it up, but decided that if he wanted to seek counseling from me on this, I probably should tell him what I honestly think.
One afternoon I was over his house when he brought it up again. Something like; “Girls don’t want to be involved with me ‘cause I’m in this chair.” I took a deep breath and replied; “Have you ever considered that you are in charge of your wheelchair, and not the other way around? You use a wheelchair to get places, but you are the one who decides where you go. By saying you’re “in a chair” it sounds like you are a victim of it, rather than it’s there to help you go where you want to go. And my opinion is that you are a good looking, smart, funny guy. Maybe you’re trying too hard, and that’s what is putting the women off; not your wheelchair.”
It was like a light when on for him. He said proudly; “You’re right! I am in charge of this wheelchair, I’m not in it. I use it to get me around!” I don’t mind telling you that I was relieved that he didn’t come back with; “Why don’t you mind your own fucking business!” or something along those lines. He wasn’t ready to believe that maybe his wheelchair wasn’t the cause of his romantic woes, but he’d taken a step away from victim hood.
We talked recently as the Yankees were getting their as#es handed to them by Cleveland in the playoffs. He brought it up. He said he never refers to himself as “in a wheelchair” any more. I asked him if he’d mind if I wrote about it on my blog. He said “Go ahead; maybe it will help somebody else.” Who knows?