Friday night was special. I spent the evening with family celebrating my great niece’s seventh birthday. Seven is a fun age, and her party was packed with things a seven year old girl would enjoy – pizza, new clothes for her doll, and a three layer cake covered with pink frosting and chocolate chips.
One of the reasons I enjoy family events is because of the laughter and love we share whenever we are together. Emily, the birthday girl, and her younger brother Evan who is four years old, kept us smiling all night. But it was an exchange that happened early in the party that continues to play in my head.
I was sitting with my sister Sandy when Evan approached us. Like most children, Evan is intrigued by my wheelchair. When he was younger, he was content to simply ride on my lap. Now he is determined to figure out how the controls regulate the various aspects of my chair, such as speed and seat elevation. Standing next to my chair, he displayed remarkable restraint keeping his hands at his side rather than reaching for my joystick. Suddenly, he turned his quizzical gaze to Sandy and this delightful interchange took place.
Evan: Aunt Sandy, where’s your wheelchair?
Sandy: I don’t have one.
Evan: Why not?
Sandy: Because I don’t need one yet. Maybe someday I’ll have one.
Evan: (looking delighted and excited, and clapping his hands) Then you’ll be twins!
The three of us laughed as Sandy picked up Evan for a hug. The party continued, with pizza, presents and cake. But Evan’s comments stuck with me and caused me to reflect as I boarded the bus to go home.
At four years of age, Evan already knows that a wheelchair is a cool piece of equipment. He does not view me with pity. He does not perceive a wheelchair or a disability as being a Bad Thing, with a capital b and capital t as said by the late, great Stella Young. Of course, he doesn’t understand all the intricacies of life with a disability because he is just four years old. But he understands critical information other nondisabled adults seem slow to grasp, such as:
- I am my own person.
- My wheelchair is not the worst thing in the world, or a reason to shy away from me.
- I do not have a poor quality of life.
- I am capable and competent.
Evan is not unique in his abilities. All of my nieces and nephews, and now their children, have been exposed to my wheelchair and my disability their entire lives. They have all developed a level of disability cultural competency through their interactions with me, a disabled family member. This has created a level of comfort with disability at a young age in many of them which their peers may not have developed.
When I am with my young family members, I don’t hear negative comments about disability. I don’t hear pity. I don’t hear insensitve or ableist comments like the ones I hear from strangers on a regular basis, such as:
You manage that thing pretty well!
Slow down – you’ll get a speeding ticket!
You got snow tires for that thing?
You’re so pretty for someone who uses a wheelchair.
Oh, you work?!
And my personal ‘favorite’…
I don’t know how you manage. If I had to use a wheelchair, I’d kill myself.
My young family members who have been exposed to my reality as a disabled woman say different things. They say things like:
That man has a red chair like Aunt Denise’s!
Maybe you could drive us to skating when you get your new van Aunt Denise.
Will you read to me Aunt Denise?
We put the ramp down for you Aunt Denise!
And my personal favorite…
I love you, Aunt Denise.
If my young nieces and nephews can understand disability is not the worst thing, why can’t more adults figure it out?