Last Friday, I said that I love my ventilator, the machine I use every night that helps me breathe. I have almost an affection for it. It comforts me. I always feel a little insecure if I’m not within an hour’s drive of it … even though I don’t use it during the day. I added that I felt the same about my electric scooter when I used one to get around campus when I was in college.
I wondered what other disabled people feel about their various items of “disability gear”. Here are the responses I got on this blog and over on my Tumbr blog:
"I've had a power wheelchair for years after having used a scooter most of my life. I definitely like the wheelchair better by comparison, but I would shy away from attributing real emotion to assistive technology. It's great thing it's available, but I view it as a tool. Hope others chime in.” — Rob J. Quinn, I’m Not Here To Inspire You
"I am coming to terms with my new limits and getting used to the cane, and very very slowly coming to terms with the idea of using a chair and reclaiming my life. The process has been incredibly hard. Fucking pride man… and like this long standing idea that if you can walk, you shouldn’t use a chair.” — Tattered Obsidian
"I make my wheelchair a fashion statement. It’s my best accessory. It’s my lifeline to independence - without it, I’ll be so dependent. Plus… I use it to get the hot guys to notice me. ~ V :)” — Vilissa Thompson, Ramp You Voice!
"We don't have a lot of specialized equipment for our 18yo daughter with moderate cerebral palsy any more. There were days when our whole house was overflowing with special cups, scissors, pencils, leg braces, hand splints, bulky seating equipment, huge car seats, bath chairs, nesting benches, switch toys, and over-sized exercise balls. There are still things that aren't typical for an 18yo - sports cups instead of glasses, a bib loaded with paper towels to soak up spills, a retractable badge hanging from her belt with a washcloth to wipe her mouth, a basic bath chair available at any drugstore. But, I have to say, it's nice to have less special stuff and less clutter. Don't get me wrong, I actually do love what we have, but only because they serve a necessary purpose.” — Kerith Stull, Brielle and Me
"My son when he was younger use to use a walker but when he started Kindergarten he began to use arm-band crutches. He has Arthrogryposis but it only effects his lower part of his body. He has very little muscle in his lower limbs. We keep an older set at the top of our stairs so he doesn't have to crawl around. We've had to purchase 4 so far. We can adjust them as he grows but it only goes to a certain height. The problem we have come across is the rubber bottom part of the crutches wear out quickly and aren't easy to find. We try to buy extra so we have them on hand. I tried to find a place locally that we could donate some of his leg and body braces from when he was younger but I guess it's a liability to use used equipment. We do have a wheelchair as well for when h e's had surgeries or when he breaks a bone, which he does often because he has brittle bones. But we pay a monthly rental fee for it. Our goal has always been to make easy and as normal for him around the house. He's now 9 years old and is pretty strong!” — Mari Blair
People appreciate the practical value of adaptive equipment. Wheelchairs, crutches, and all kinds of other devices make life easier for disabled people. If you have an impairment, like not being able to walk, then equipment like a wheelchair is liberating.
On the other hand, we live in a society where assistive devices still tend to symbolize disability. You still hear people talk about someone being “wheelchair bound”, and “throwing away the crutches”, as if the equipment is the disability. While it is natural for people adjusting to new disabilities to feel negatively at first about adaptive equipment, I think that people who continue feeling awful and stigmatized by their adaptive devices tend also to have negative feelings about their own disabilities, and maybe a bit of self-loathing, too.
One factor I think gets overlooked, however, is the quality and fit of adaptive equipment. A heavy, one-size-fits all rental wheelchair is not as liberating as a custom fit lightweight. A hearing aid that doesn’t work properly can be literally a pain. Having a bunch of gadgets you didn’t choose, that someone else told you would be useful but aren’t, can be demoralizing.
In her later years, my grandmother was, as she would say, “lame”. She and my grandfather lived in a nice condo in Florida, but she rarely went out, and my parents were pretty sure it was because she didn’t like being seen in a wheelchair. Mom and Dad interpreted that as Grandma being vain and old-fashioned, and it saddened them to see her cooped up for what they felt was no good reason. "Fucking pride man."
They may have been right. Grandma was born before the 20th century started, and she was, in many ways, “proud”. Thinking back on it, though, I wonder whether part of the problem was that in the late ‘70s she simply didn’t have access to adaptive equipment that wasn’t cumbersome and unnecessarily ugly. I’d love to travel back in time and give her a sharp-looking, powered Hoveround or Jazzy. Grandma had a walker, too, that was functional but drab. I wonder if she would have enjoyed one in cool colors … maybe some pinks. She liked pink.
I think it’s important for both disabled and non-disabled people to remember from time to time that disability gear is meant to be liberating, not a millstone. A walker is not a disability; it makes a certain kind of disability easier to live with. And it’s not crazy or some kind of conscious stance that many of us feel close to our devices. We don’t like strangers randomly touching and handling our wheelchairs, and when our canes and walkers are taken from us we feel incomplete and vulnerable. My ventilator was portrayed to me as an unpleasant last resort before I got it, but I feel like I am really at home when it’s there … even if I’m in a motel room in a strange city.
I’ve never decorated any of my adaptive items, but you know, my tracheostomy tube uses disposable fabric ties. Maybe one of these days I should see how it feels to wear one in a chosen color other than hospital white.