About a month ago, a video started making the rounds on Facebook that had been posted by CBS News. The video was of a young man in a wheelchair who was at his graduation ceremony at my alma mater, Florida International University. He was at the edge of the stage fitted with an exoskeleton, two walking sticks, and an assistant. When his name was called to receive his diploma, a couple of people helped him stand up out of his wheelchair, and slowly and haltingly he took his steps and made his way across the stage to receive his diploma. The crowd went crazy and the video went viral. I was very excited and happy for the young graduate, but I was extremely unhappy with the public’s reaction.
To give you a little bit of context, the graduate had been in a car accident some years before and had a spinal cord injury that had caused paralysis. The exoskeleton wasn’t his, and he had only practiced with it for a few hours just to use it for the graduation ceremony. It wasn’t a part of his regular therapy, and I presume that he wouldn’t be using it again in the future (exoskeletons cost around $70,000 and aren’t covered by insurance). I also presume that it was a big personal of goal of his to walk across the stage in order to get his diploma, but that his life as a paraplegic would go on as it had for the previous years.
Fast forward to today when I see another video in my feed of a groom at his wedding. He is about to dance for the first time with his bride. But instead of staying in his wheelchair, two of his groomsmen attach one of their legs to both of his so that he can stand up in place. His bride approaches him, and for the first dance, she holds him and they sway side to side while he is supported by his two groomsmen. This video also went viral, and the social media reactions are of great joy and tears by able-bodied people everywhere. Again, I’m extremely unhappy with the public’s reaction.
How can you be so insensitive, Sylvia? Why can you just be happy for these people? These are amazing accomplishments and they should be celebrated!
Sigh. To be clear, I am extremely happy for all these people involved. I am sure that these where some of the most important and most emotional moments in their lives. My frustration isn’t with the wheelchair users. My frustration lies with a society that needs wheelchair users to stand up and/or walk again to make them cry, make them feel inspired, and let’s just say it, folks — make them feel more comfortable.
First, let’s talk about the videos themselves. Would any of these videos have gone viral if the wheelchair user had remained in his wheelchair? Is the happiness surrounded by graduating University diminished? Is the joy of marrying the love of your life diminished? Definitely not, I would say. But there’s no virality involved in a wheelchair user rolling across the stage or wheeling across the dance floor. You might be tempted to say that it’s about the physical, emotional, and personal struggle involved to stand up or walk with assistance when you’re a paraplegic. I would venture to say that there is more personal struggle involved in losing dozens of pounds or more for a special event like a wedding. However, you don’t see any viral videos of a bride who has gone from a size 20 to a size 4 over the course of two years dancing at her wedding reception.
What is it about seeing a wheelchair user stand or walk after years of paralysis that makes able-bodied people go so batshit crazy?
I discussed this question with some friends on Facebook, and a friend of mine made a good point. He suggested that people like watching others do something that is personally desired, yet very difficult for them. The underdog winning a fight, basically. I get that. There have certainly been many viral videos of athletes achieving amazing things, like the UCLA gymnast who got a seemingly impossible perfect score at a competition last February to music by Michael Jackson. But let’s take a look at the issue using that example. That gymnast is trained to be a gymnast. She’s been practicing that routine for a long time, and she has been honing her skills as a gymnast for many years. The score itself is a result of the mind blowing routine made for an amazing viral video. But the virality of the video celebrated her exceptional skill; more specifically, something that she had been working towards for years, and would continue to do in the future.
Let’s pivot over again to the graduate and the groom. Both of these men went back to using a wheelchair the next day. The graduate will be looking for a job and doing work for which he is educated and trained. The groom will go back to his job and to being a new husband. They are not being celebrated for their minds or their skills or their talents, or even their character. They are being celebrated only because they attempted to fit society’s view of “normal” for just a few minutes and succeeded. This is what makes me upset because I feel they should be celebrated regardless of their ability to walk or stand.
I think many people don’t fully understand how ingrained the ability to walk is in our primitive brains. Those who can walk normally never think about it after they learn how to do it, unless they lose the ability to a temporary injury. The ability to walk is so ingrained that most wheelchair users see themselves walking in their dreams, despite the fact that they have never taken an actual step in their waking lives. It is typical for able-bodied people to feel uncomfortable or awkward around people in wheelchairs, not knowing what to say or not say, or how to behave. We are not the standard, and historically have been considered the weak link of humanity. Just ask the Nazis.
I suggest that the subconscious reaction by able-bodied people to this discomfort is to fix us because in some way society sees us as broken. Doesn’t every wheelchair user want to walk someday? You might be amazed to know that the answer to that is a resounding NO. If society spent more time making our communities more accessible and allowing us to integrate, society might be more prone to accept us as normal exactly the way that we are, instead of trying to encourage us to conform to “normal” by giving us machines that help us stand up or walk. I’m not disabled because I have multiple sclerosis. I’m disabled because there’s a step to get in that shop. If there were no step, I can live my life exactly the same way as someone who can walk.
People tell me all the time that I’m inspiring. But why? There are tons of other women who travel solo, manage small businesses, and are single mothers. Am I inspiring only because I’m a wheelchair user, or does it go beyond that? Am I inspiring the people who tell me that to do something specific? Does it matter to them what kind of person I am? How I treat other people? Would the millions of people who watched those viral videos have gotten as emotional or felt as inspired if the graduate and the groom had stayed in their wheelchairs? It’s hard to say because those videos most likely never would have gone viral.
I need to be perfectly clear that I am incredibly overjoyed, thrilled, happy, and every positive feeling you can insert here for the wheelchair users who have personal goals to stand or walk again, whether permanently or temporarily. Those moments are all about them. What concerns me is how their personal goals and resulting physical acts impact society’s view of us as wheelchair users outside of those moments. All I ask is that the next time you see a video of a wheelchair user standing up or walking with the help of technology or other people only for a few minutes to engage in one activity for short amount of time, ask yourself why you feel the way that you feel. Then, ask yourself how you would feel watching a video of the same activity with the same wheelchair user staying in his or her wheelchair. If you can acknowledge that you would feel differently, ask yourself why. Then email me and tell me all about it.