Friday, 9 September 2016

Why there's no need for "I'm sorry you're in a wheelchair".

Not long ago I travelled across London by bus. During the journey I had a few brief chats with a few people, like you sometimes do on public transport. But 2 stuck in my head.

They followed the same lines: a few standard comments on the weather, roadworks, purpose of today's travel, which led into what I do for work and questions about my wheelchair and disability. Which I answered, because I felt like it, and because once we've got on to the subject of my job, questions about my disability are a natural progression - seeing as the business has grown from my disability.

Anyway, both conversations ended with "well, I'm sorry you are in a wheelchair."

Both times I felt....discombobulated.

[To discombobulate: to confuse or disconcert; upset; frustrate:]

I tried to reply. To say that my wheelchair was a) normal for me, and b) a very awesome piece of kit. The end of the second conversation was particularly memorable. Once he'd voiced his pity, every statement I made about the freedom my wheels bring, he simply replied with "Nevertheless, I'm sorry." Several times. It made my skin crawl. I fell silent. We reached his stop, and he got off the bus.

I know he was trying to be supportive, trying to be nice. But it wasn't. Just no.

Why was my reaction so strong, why was it such an alien and disconcerting concept?

Yesterday I realised the answer:
My wheels are the reason I can work. 
The reason I can get out of my house. 
The reason I can shop. 
The reason I can socialise. 
The reason I can dance. 
 My wheels are my freedom.

When someone says "I'm sorry you are in a wheelchair", to me it means "I am sorry you can work. I'm sorry you can get out of the house, shop, socialise and dance. I'm sorry you have freedom and independence."

Their pity makes no sense.

There are challenges in my life, but having the privilege of using an excellent wheelchair that suits my needs well and expands my world most beautifully is definitely not one of them. 

There is no reason to be sorry that I'm in my wheelchair.

Instead, there are many reasons to consider it one of the greatest inventions ever.


[Edited to add: You may also be interested in our next blog outlining why you also don't need to say you are sorry I am disabled.]


  1. I often get the "I'm sorry you're in a wheelchair" comment from people. I just say "I'm not sorry- I'm wheeling about in a great big toy all day long and it's tons of fun to wheel about, who else gets to play with toys all day long?!" Then give a big grin and wheel off. 😄 they just stand there looking stunned, it's really funny! 😄

  2. "Well I'm sorry you're a butt-face. You don't need awesome wheels for that"

  3. I understand why people feel sorry that we're in a wheelchair. I probably used to think like that until I injured my back and learned what immense freedom a wheelchair can bring. It's a lack of understanding and more a reflection of the fear they have within themselves.

    1. I think people often use language inaccurately. I think that they aren't really sorry for you being in a wheelchair, but might really mean "Sorry that you have some issue that causes you to be in a wheelchair". Again I'm not saying that's any better, but I wonder if that's what they really mean? I think their intention is good, but of course kindness + ignorance can often equal something that causes another person heartache.

  4. (I hope this isn't considered inappropriate - Content Note for suicide/depression.)

    It must be over ten years ago now, but I still haven't got over the complete stranger who stopped me in the street to tell me that she'd kill herself if she "had to be in a wheelchair." I must have goggled at her. I said, "Oh, I'm sure you wouldn't," and she replied, "Yes, yes, I would," and went on to tell me how brave I must be, blah, blah, blah...

    I wonder why she thought that was at all helpful?

    Fortunately, I'd had several years to adjust to being physically impaired and was in a good mental place at the time, so I was mainly overwhelmed by WHAT?!!!, but I struggle with depression (and had attempted suicide before I became disabled) and if I'd been in a less-good place this conversation could easily have led to me having serious problems.

    If she thought that she was telling me how wonderful I was because I could cope with having to use a wheelchair, I'm afraid that message got completely lost in the assumption that my life must be so unremittingly awful.


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