No, I Don't Want You to Ask About My Mobility Aids
Living in fear of stares, snide comments and intrusive questions from non-disabled people makes using a mobility aid an exercise in endurance. Now that it's "hot girl summer," it's time for all the beauties with mobility aids to embrace disability and everything that comes with it.
Disabled folks are expected to be unobtrusive and invisible so when we use our mobility aids in public, oftentimes, people become transfixed. This relentless curiosity from others prevents many of us from confidently using mobility aids because we live in fear of judgment or unsolicited questions.
With over one billion disabled people worldwide and approximately 6.8 million Americans using mobility aids, you'd think we would have learned to stop staring. As a person with a disability, the weight of outside judgment meant I put off buying a cane for years and, though I have several, I still fight an internal battle between comfort and anonymity any time I need my cane.
"Having a disability is like living in a world where you are repeatedly told that you are not welcome and you do not belong," explains Kaley Roosen, Ph.D. C.Psych, a clinical and health psychologist at the Toronto Psychology Clinic. "A mobility device is often viewed as the ultimate representation of visible disability. Folks reject using mobility devices often out of fear of being labeled as disabled and further feeling different or ostracized. People can become more self-conscious and hyper-vigilant that others are noticing them and negatively judging them."
On top of the ableism aimed at us from the outside, disabled people internalize prejudice from birth. We absorb the belief that being disabled is to be avoided at all costs and, if generally "invisibly" disabled, sometimes that means leaving our mobility aids where no one can see them.
"I felt like it made me stick out like a sore thumb, and I didn't like that," says Kate Rice, who started using a walking stick after a bad arthritic flare. "I wanted to feel grateful for the movement and freedom it could give me but I really struggled to stay in that positive mindset in the beginning. There were countless times where I didn't use it and put myself through inevitable flare-ups because I was too embarrassed to use a stick in public, which definitely slowed any kind of recovery that I was hoping for."
Knowing you need a mobility aid and actually using one is worlds apart. No matter how many mobility aids you use, the battle against internalized ableism is ceaseless.
"You think you're okay with it and then you feel guilty for not being okay with it because you thought you'd already done the work," says Hannah Hoskins, who has fibromyalgia and uses a range of mobility aids, including a wheelchair, walking sticker and walker. "The way people treat you changes with whatever mobility aid you use. [A walker] gave me so much more freedom, like if there was a queue I could sit down and rest, and then there was the moment where I realized I was stared at so much more. Going to a wheelchair after that, I didn't realize that the moment I stepped into a wheelchair I became invisible. I went from being the center of attention to not a single person talking to me and only talking to my partner. I basically became a moving trolley that people would dump things on and avoid all contact with."
Electing to hide the mobility aid feels like the easiest choice because, with the exception of the incredibly vain, no one likes to be stared at by strangers. Moving past the fear requires learning to care as little as non-disabled people do about their rudeness. I wear sunglasses and listen to loud music while using my cane alone. Though the looks remain, my tinted lenses and empowering music feel like a shield against ableism, and people are less likely to approach me with intrusive questions.
"When I was really struggling I pictured telling a friend what I had been telling myself to realize how harsh my mindset was," says Rice, a freelance journalist. "If my friend was using an aid for the first time, I would not look down on them or think they're faking it for attention, so why did I tell myself these things?"
Even for those of us who have built up mobility aid confidence, facing the world after being at home for nearly two years is daunting. Hoskins, the founder of Not Your Grandmas, adds: "Covid has reminded me that no matter how far you think you are with the work, there's always more work because other people's attitudes haven't changed."
Scary as it is, we cannot stay hidden away forever and there are straightforward steps to relieving the discomfort triggered by using mobility aids publicly.
"The more you avoid going out with your mobility aid out of fear or embarrassment, the greater that fear and embarrassment will feel and the harder it will be to confront it in the future," advises Dr. Roosen. "Think of ways to approach your anxiety and the events you are motivated to attend in a slow and supportive way—try not to jump into the deep end! Start with places with fewer people where you will be using your device free of crowds and you are less likely to get people asking you inappropriate questions."
Practicing at home or in other safe spaces is another option. I decorated my cane and bought colorful ones to make it a part of my wardrobe. As Dr. Roosen explains, "This will elicit positive body image feelings in you and help you drown out others' perceptions of you."
Finding a disabled community of people who understand your experiences is also key—we need each other to thrive. "I began speaking to other disabled people, which I had never done before, and they normalized the need for accommodations and mobility aids in ways I had never experienced," says Rice. "It was incredible to have people who related to my struggles, as well as reassuring me that something like a mobility aid does not have to be a negative thing in the slightest."
As disabled people embrace mobility aids, the rest of society has work to do, too. Non-disabled people must learn to mind their own business, stop asking invasive questions and rethink their understanding of disability. With this unlearning, they can become true allies to disabled people and help more of us accept our mobility aids by treating us like anyone else.
Like all socially ingrained biases, we unravel internalized ableism every day and there will be more occasions when I submit and hide the cane—but not forever. Mobility aids offer the gift of access and freedom to the disabled people who use them, so I refuse to let internalized shame and exterior judgment win. The ableists can choose ignorance if they want but my sunglasses, matching cane and I will be out looking like a midsummer night's dream.