Fighting the Stigma of Power Wheelchairs

Kids love machines. We recently got a new gadget that infuses still water with carbonation to cut down on our family’s consumption of single-use sparkling water bottles and cans. Observing this device in action was a major event when we hosted one of my kids’ playmates for dinner recently. 

As exciting as a seltzer maker is to my preschoolers, nothing compares to the ecstasy of witnessing any sort of vehicle in action. All activity ceases on Friday mornings when the trash truck comes rumbling by. They make a mad dash for the front windows and, sometimes, out the front door and onto the sidewalk to cheer.  A similar scene happens when a helicopter or low flying plane comes cruising overhead.  As a present for my son’s third birthday last week, we masked up and went on a ride on the San Diego trolley. It was something he specifically asked for. I’m pretty sure our family owns more toy trucks than we do wine glasses, coffee cups, dinner plates and silverware combined.

The Stigma of Power Wheelchairs and Disabilities

Human beings don’t naturally fear and stigmatize manual wheelchairs and motorized wheelchairs. It is something that is learned.  A child may be curious about power wheelchairs or maybe even a bit confused. Most of the time, there is the potential to turn those kinds of reactions into the same kind of glee evoked by a cement mixer. I am realizing more and more after getting vaccinated and moving back into public life that my Edge 3 Power Wheelchair with iLevel® technology can be a stigma management tool. 

Using My Power Wheelchair as a Learning Tool

In that first encounter with a new child on the playground, I prefer making a show of how my seat reclines or elevates rather than them standing and gawking at my body.  More importantly, my kids much prefer telling potential new friends about how cool my wheelchair is rather than experience what Goffman famously called “courtesy stigma” or stigma by association. Over time, kids’ fascination with machines can even normalize disability for them. 

At the height of the pandemic, my crew “podded” with another family from my daughter’s preschool who had a parent that also works at my university.  We spent countless afternoons masked up and riding bikes and scooters in deserted university parking garages and lots. I still remember the first time her young friend asked if he too could have a motorized wheelchair ride.

Now, when we see him walking into preschool on weekday mornings, he is sometimes scolded by his mom for climbing up onto his perch to catch a ride without asking first. Consent to touch my body or my motorized wheelchair is usually a big deal for me.  In this case, I take absolute delight in how comfortable he is with my disabled body and typically stigmatized machine. It’s even better than hearing the rumble of the garbage truck at 7 a.m. on Friday morning.

About Joe Stramondo: Joe is an assistant professor at San Diego University and is extremely active in the disability community. Joe uses an Edge 3 Power Wheelchair to maintain his mobility and independence. In his spare time, Joe strives to be the best father he can to his children. Click here to learn more about Joe.

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