Now THAT’s wheelchair bound.
Lately I have seen many more headlines in newspapers, magazines, websites, and just media in general, referring to a person who uses a wheelchair as “wheelchair bound.” This annoys me to no end because the chances are pretty slim that the person was actually “bound” to a wheelchair. According to Merriam-Webster, the adjectival definition of bound is “fastened by or as if by a band: confined.”
I really don’t believe that every person who uses the term “wheelchair-bound” or says somebody is “bound to their wheelchair,” is trying to denigrate the individual who uses the wheelchair. However, that is not an excuse for using the terminology. It may have been acceptable at one time, but times change and so do acceptable words and phrases.
To say someone is “wheelchair-bound” is to perpetuate an unfortunately popular misconception that someone’s wheelchair is the most prominent and important aspect of that person. It’s as if the person who uses the wheelchair is not really a person, but rather some type of machine. Of course, there are implantable technologies that can make a person feel like a cyborg (which is a positive thing for this sci-fi geek who has a cochlear implant!), however, to be referred to as a machine is inappropriate.
The definition I quoted in the first paragraph uses the word “confined.” A wheelchair does pretty much the opposite for those of us who use them; they enable us and they are extremely liberating devices. When I hear someone described as “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair,” I always think of a way that one of my sisters described my wife, Sheri: “When she is in her chair, she is a whirlwind!”
I think it’s important to not just scold journalists who use “wheelchair-bound” (or some semblance thereof) but to also reach out to those who have an opportunity to use it, but don’t — they should to be thanked for their respect.
We just passed the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and there was celebration and recognition of the positive changes that have been made in physical access and other accommodations for individuals with disabilities. And there certainly have been many positive changes, however, if antiquated and quite frankly demeaning terminology like “wheelchair-bound” does not change, then I hesitate to recognize the fact that we have made progress since passage of the ADA. Please, this is not just a matter of getting exercised over simple semantics. How would you feel if someone described you as “bound?” Words matter. And they can hurt.
Tony Trott is 46 years old and resides in Arlington, Va. He has Friedreich¹s Ataxia. He and his wife run a business called Happy on Wheels and would love to connect with you on Facebook and Twitter (links on website).