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I am five when I get my first wheelchair. She is mauve (my favorite color: pinkish-purpley, I call it) and comes with a schoolbag on the back decorated with fish. I love her. For me she means a relief from the mountain-buggy I’ve sat slumped in (the best way for my parents to transport me since I became less baby and more kid). She means freedom. I am blissfully unaware of the way a wheelchair will make me look.
I’ve had a disability my whole life. I’ve had a wheelchair for my whole academic life. I’ve also had a terrible case of wanderlust as far back as I can remember. The jury is still out on whether that feeling is accentuated by the general limitations of my body or not. Depends how poetic I’m feeling. The fact is, I’ve always wanted to be going somewhere. The thing that gives me freedom however equally articulates my limitations to any onlooker who is then free to make uninvited assumptions about my abilities.
As a full-time wheelchair user I get pretty good at circumventing the awkward questions the chair attracts. It was not till university that I came across the discourse of disclosure: that I was free not to answer in detail. The chair is the springboard to those questions and I am rarely in a situation without the chair so the concept made little sense to me. I sometimes still (wrongly) find myself annoyed by the non-disclosure of others because it feels like they have an easy exit and I don’t (wrong again, invisible disability comes with its own raft of tensions).
The only times I have to make an active choice about whether to out myself as disabled are online or in airplanes. I am seated first and no one else boarding sees the chair. Striking up a conversation on a flight recently I was thrilled by the anonymity of it. The conversation was going well until she said: you should try the Tongariro crossing. Crossroads. I panic. Hide behind the experience of an able bodied friend: “oh, Frank is a geologist, said he loved it.”. It is when she invites me to go skiing that things get tricky. I’ve been before, but crip skiing is different. Do I let her know what she is in for? I am still figuring this out when the plane lands. She is waiting for me to get up: “coming with?” “Just waiting for my wheelchair,” I say with faux confidence. She says, “oh okay, add me on Facebook,” she leaves me with my thoughts. Gratitude she didn’t freak out, and a knee-jerk reaction against that. #conflictedcrip. Which narratives about my body get to count and should I be surprised when the reaction is positive?