One of the delights of Twitter is to follow such things as the Guardian newspaper style-guide (twitter.com/guardianstyle). But an entry today set me thinking about the confines of wheel-chairs, disability and how to use language.
The tweet read: “… say (if relevant) that someone uses a wheelchair, not is ‘in a wheelchair’ or ‘wheelchair-bound’ – (which is) stigmatising and inaccurate”. I am not so sure it is so simple, when I recall time spent with my godmother and cousin Rosemary Sutcliff – Romie, as I knew her – and her attitude to her wheel-chair. She did consider herself bound by her wheelchair in some respects and would dearly like not to have been. She had to rely on people to push her around when she left the confines of her own house (where she walked with the aid of a stick); people, that is, who included this young godson who delighted in speeding down pavements and not infrequently dumped her in the bushes and flowerbeds.
But I am not so sure she felt ‘stigmatised’, nor in the right circumstances would have thought it ‘inaccurate’, if someone wrote that she was ‘wheel-chair bound’. She was bounded by her disability if not her wheel-chair. Writing about her disability in The International Year of Disabled People (1981) she said:
Because I am fairly badly disabled, I cannot go off and do things on my own. Unless I can find a friend who wants to see the play I want to see, or who is going to the gathering I want to go to, I don’t get there. This means, amongst other things, a surprising loss of privacy. I can never do anything that someone else doesn’t know about. (More here)
However, I do think she would have rejected the general assertion that because she used a wheelchair she was sometimes ‘bound’ by it. Her writing (and her painting before that) were leaps way beyond the confines of her immediate world, which was in very real physical ways bounded by the limits to her mobility caused by childhood illness.