Coming to Stanford, I was struck for the very first time in my life that I now belong to the majority: I move around campus using wheels. Granted, I may have four wheels instead of two, and my powered wheelchair may be a little more hi-tech than the average bike, but for once in my life, I am not alone in having to find step-free routes to class and experiencing sheer glee when I come across a portion of smooth terrain.
Despite the physical similarities on the surface, I do not view my powered wheelchair as a mode of transport to get me from here to there but rather as an integral part of who I am. It is for this reason that I find it entirely acceptable to refer to myself as “walking to class” or “standing over here,” and I think you should too.
If I had a dollar for every creative verb that was found to replace “walking” during my conversations with able-bodied friends, I certainly would not be needing financial aid to attend Stanford. When planning to meet for lunch at a location within walking distance, it is often suggested that we “roll” to said location or perhaps — a personal favorite of mine — we should “wheel.” The point of this article is in no way to undermine these attempts to include me in conversational vocabulary as I know they are born from the best intentions. All I simply mean to convey is that I will not be offended by the “w-word,” and fear of offending me should not be a barrier to further social interaction.
In the past, I have been called out for daring to use able-bodied words such as “standing” and have frequently received oh-so-hilarious responses such as “Ha! Don’t you mean sitting?!” Again, this does not even remotely offend me, but all it does is highlight a propensity to overthink social interactions with individuals with disabilities, which, in turn, leads to a great, huge pile of awkwardness and a reluctance to take the conversation any further.
Of course, I can only speak on behalf of myself, and common sense should most definitely be applied when determining what is and what is not appropriate to say to anyone whose experiences differ from your own, but as a general rule, difficulties arise only when fear of being politically incorrect inhibits the natural flow of human interaction.
Oftentimes, if there is any uncertainty about how a certain topic in the realm of disability should be approached, the easiest way to diffuse any lingering awkwardness is quite simply just to ask. Don’t be afraid to ask thoughtful questions as, for the most part, you will receive honest and open answers. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I am thankful for having arrived in a place like Stanford where people are willing to work through those initial seconds of uncertainty with regards to my disability and seek meaningful relationships with me that go beyond whether I “walk” or “wheel” and see me as simply “Tilly.”
Contact Tilly Griffiths at tillykg ‘at’ stanford.edu.