We Are Not Wheelchair-Bound

The Star published several physical disability-related articles during the last few days. This coverage has highlighted some of the problems people living with permanent physical impairments have to go through very often. The journalists and editors must be given credit for drawing the public’s attention to such issues.

While such moves to advance the cause of people with disabilities are highly commendable, the selection of words used to describe the persons is imprecise. By using the term wheelchair-bound, it is implied that we are constrained to our wheelchairs. I am also guilty for using this term and some others in my blog to describe myself. I am currently learning to write using the acceptable terms to better reflect the course I am pursuing now. The wheelchair is an apparatus we use to improve our mobility. We are in no way bound to it. We have a life away from the wheelchair too. Likewise, do we call a manager who sits in his executive chair all day chair-bound?

The appropriate words to describe a person like me, if there is a need to include my wheelchair in the description, should be wheelchair user. My peers and I have agreed that this is a better term to use during Disability Equality Training in November. In light of that, the appropriate term to use for parking lots for drivers using wheelchairs is accessile parking and not handicapped parking or disabled parking. Toilets for wheelchair users is better referred to as accessible toilets rather than handicapped or disabled toilets.

Another word that is often associated to people with disabilities is handicapped. Yes, we are physically impaired, but what handicaps us is the environment that was not built to suit our needs. A properly equipped wheelchair accessible toilet enables us. A building with steps but no ramp for access handicaps us. If society is built to include people with disabilities, where all barriers are removed, there would not be a need to label us as people with disabilities, disabled persons, handicapped or crippled, the last two words which is undignified and offensive in some ways. We can all then live our lives on somewhat equal terms. Susan Hemmings and Jenny Morris formulated the Definition of Disability that succinctly explains it in an easy to understand sum.

Impairment + Disenabling Factor = Disability

Person with Impairment + Experience of Disenabling Factor = Disabled Person

A disabled person is a person nonetheless. In many cases, the impairment is not the disenabling factor. The surrounding is. We should not attempt to change the person with impairment to suit the environment. Rather, the environment must be put together to enable the person with impairment the freedom to live a life with qualities that are at par with the non-disabled. And remember, we are not wheelchair-bound. We are wheelchair users.

Interesting read:
Beyond the AP Stylebook

Author: Peter Tan

Peter Gabriel Tan. Penangite residing in the Klang Valley. Blissfully married to Wuan. A LaSallian through and through. Slave to three cats. Wheelchair user since 1984. End-stage renal disease since 2017. Principal Facilitator at Peter Tan Training specialising in Disability Equality Training. Former columnist of Breaking Barriers with The Borneo Post. This blog chronicles my life, thoughts and opinions. Connect with me on Twitter and Facebook.

11 thoughts on “We Are Not Wheelchair-Bound”

  1. There are those times when I leave your blog to feel a little more enlightened and a little more embarassed at my prior ignorance.

  2. scorkes,
    I have been ignorant too and is still ignorant in many ways. Recently, I have been given the opportunity to understand more and that is what I am sharing here.

    We learn someting new everyday.

  3. me too open eyes liao… but i getting confused at the same time.. so how should I refer OKU (or is that not a nice term ?) Or maybe physically challenged.. hmmm that didn’t sound right… help me out here….. aiya Peter better … my fren… thanks for the friendship

  4. FindingMe,
    If you translate the term Orang Kurang Upaya (OKU) to English, it means People of Lesser Ability. That is not a very nice way to describe people like me, don’t you think so? It has been suggested that it be changed to Orang Kelainan Upaya. For most of us, we would rather that anything like this be dropped and we be referred to as a person, not our condition. Yes, friend is something very acceptable. 😀 Thanks.

  5. Silly Pat,
    Our needs are not special, just different.

    I hope to enjoy my stay there, if the cold don’t bother me too much. Thanks.

  6. I think we are all learning. I remembered an Indonesian colleague who never use the word “disabled” ever again, but rather would use the word “diffabled” (Differently Abled). I think perhaps that is where you get “Kelainan Upaya” from.

    An argument to that would be to ask, “Apa yang kelainannya?” (What’s the difference?). I could give an argument that disabled people are different than able bodied people, because of their different experiences in life unique to them, and thus being able to have a different set of skills.

    Take the example of blind people and/or vision-impaired persons. I noticed while interacting with at least four blind persons before in training sessions, that they are able to “see in patterns”. Because of this ability, they are quick to the mark when connecting ideas and concepts in their minds. Quicker than sighted persons.

    Emotionally people who have been physically disabled since childhood have the ability to be “not caring what people think of them”, and this emotional strength gives an edge when facing with discrimination. This gives the effect of being able to contain emotional setbacks better than able bodied people.

    Of course, the things I have mentioned are for the more enlightened ones, as there are disabled people that need to unshackle their setbacks from their minds, like similar able bodied people.

    If you want to expand more knowledge on the issue, there is an excellent website with interesting articles, although written academically, the articles provide the background research to terms and terminologies etc:


  7. Every informative there Peter. I agree with what scorkes said, I usually leave your blog feeling down because I didn’t the grass is NOT always greener on the other side.

    Too bad we are human, why do we keep comparing and thinking that the grass is always greener on the other side? Why?

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