When fear of wheelchairs is really fear of institutionalization

Journalists sometimes inappropriately describe wheelchair users as “wheelchair-bound”. This is offensive, because it’s misleadingly negative. Wheelchairs aren’t a restriction, they’re a liberation. They make it possible to go places and do things, and to move through the world without needing someone else’s permission. Wheelchairs are absolutely amazing and should be viewed as positive.

Except — in institutions, wheelchairs are routinely used as restraints. (And sometimes instruments of humiliation and torture). And I think that is probably a factor in why many people find wheelchairs frightening.

Walk through the hall of any nursing home, and you’ll see people parked in clunky manual wheelchairs that they aren’t able to self-propel. (And which don’t fit properly, don’t have good positioning support, and can be very painful to sit in for extended periods). Those people aren’t being liberated. Those people are very literally wheelchair bound. Often over their obvious protests.

People in institutions who try to get out of wheelchairs tend to be strapped in with seat belts they can’t undo. People who persist in resisting that tend to be medicated until they can’t. People who live in institutions also tend to have some times in their lives where things look pretty good, where it looks like they’re being well cared for and that they’re happy and enjoying themselves. Those good times aren’t representative of what it’s like to live in a institution. On some level, everyone knows this.

I think sometimes, when people are afraid of wheelchairs, what they’re really afraid of is institutions. They’re afraid that needing a wheelchair means that those kinds of things will happen to you. They see people in wheelchairs having a good time and out and about in apparent freedom, and they viscerally feel like it’s an illusion, like it’s no more representative of reality than the times you see institutionalized people having fun and looking free.

I think that in order to teach people that they’re wrong about wheelchairs, we have to teach them that they’re wrong about institutions. Losing mobility doesn’t have to mean living locked up in a nursing home. Neither does losing speech or words or cognitive functioning. People with severe physical and cognitive disabilities live in their homes in the community.

There is no disability that means someone needs to be institutionalized and treated the way people are treated in nursing homes. No one should be stuck in an institution. Institutions aren’t inevitable; they are always a social failure. Institutions are bad; wheelchairs are good, and wheelchair users can live in their homes as free people and have good lives. 

Tl;dr Wheelchairs are good, but a lot of people are viscerally horrified by them. I think this is in part because people associate wheelchairs with institutionalization. They see horrible things happening to wheelchair users in institutions, and think that’s what it means to be a wheelchair user. If we want people to understand that wheelchairs are good, we need to teach them that no one needs to live in an institution.