The Trouble with Teachable Moments About Disabilities
A few weeks ago, I spent the afternoon roaming around Central Park Zoo with one of my best friends. We were about to approach the bat exhibit when a toddler rushed past me in a little blonde-haired blur, his mother running after him, when suddenly he stopped in his tracks and looked at me. “I want to push her,” he declared.
The little boy’s mom started to explain why this wasn’t possible, since she could clearly tell my wheelchair is battery-operated. I bent down to give him a demonstration of how my chair works, moving the joystick forward and back. He was utterly riveted, so I asked if he wanted to try pushing the joystick. I turned the speed all the way down so he wouldn’t hit anyone, and guided him to move the chair forward.
My mini-lesson in power chairs was cut short when I noticed two stray dots of blood on my hand. We discovered the little boy had been running around with a small scrape on his elbow, so his mother pulled him away to clean it up and put a bandage on it. I figured that was the end of the encounter, so my friend and I started to head to the next exhibit, but the boy came barreling back over and grabbed the joystick on my chair without my permission.
The boy’s uncle, who had moments earlier handed me a wipe to clean his nephew’s blood off my finger, immediately scolded the boy and told him that he can’t just touch something that belongs to someone else without asking first. His mother came rushing over and said, “Oh, it’s okay, she gave him permission.”
Sure, I did, but that was a one-time deal. Thankfully, the boy let go and I was able to diffuse the situation by simply saying, “Sorry buddy, you can’t play with it. You have to be careful! What’s your name, though?” He loudly told me his name and asked me mine. Then his mom scooped him up, said it was time to go, and told him to say goodbye to me. He yelled “Bye, Emily!” over his mom’s shoulder, and I couldn’t help smiling. I shrugged it off as him being a cute and precocious little boy, and shrugged it off. All was well.
But was all well, really? I had this weird sinking feeling for the rest of that day. I believe firmly in openness and honesty, in educating children and showing them that my wheelchair helps me move. After this particular interaction, though, I worried that my well-intentioned attempt at a “teachable moment” had completely backfired. Had I just given a little kid carte blanche to run up to other people and mess with their wheelchairs? I assumed I was just satisfying his innocent curiosity and doing a good thing. And yet, when I saw another man in a power wheelchair touring the zoo about 15 minutes late, I had the urge to go up to him and apologize in case a little blonde spitfire had ambushed him to check out how his wheelchair works, too.
It’s such a struggle, I feel, to find the balance between educating and taking things too far. Last year, after a kid came up to me to ask about my wheelchair and his mother reprimanded him to be careful that I didn’t run him over, I pondered why parents need to respond better to their children when they stare or ask questions about people with visible disabilities. I’ve noticed parents often take more issue with their kids being curious than disabled people do. That being said, I realize that even though I feel compelled to teach, I risk sending a certain message about all wheelchair users. I certainly hope it’s a positive message, but it’s always possible that toddlers just take it as license to play or overstep boundaries. If they can touch one person’s wheelchair, why not another’s too?
So, even though I’m still very much in favor of taking a moment to be friendly and explain, maybe it’s time to change my “teachable moment” methods. I never want to alienate younger generations, but I don’t want to potentially put other wheelchair users in difficult positions. My hope in writing this is to start conversations about how best to naturalize mobility equipment in the mainstream and ultimately, to show everyone – not just kids – that wheelchairs are nothing more than technology to help people get around.
Emily Ladau is a writer and disability rights activist whose passion is to harness the powers of language and social media as tools for people to become informed and engaged social justice advocates. She maintains a blog, Words I Wheel By, as a platform to address discrimination and to encourage people to understand the experience of having a disability in more positive, accepting, and supportive ways. You’re welcome to connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.