Words that hurt: Person v. object

photo of Alex Stoffel smiling
Alex Stoffel

The other day I was rolling in my wheelchair to work and passed by a summer camp group of kids running along the sidewalk. The camp counselor, a young woman in her 20s, frantically rushed behind them. As they passed me, the counselor tried to corral the kids and said, “Hey, guys, watch out for the wheelchair.” 

I instantly felt a bit of anger but was unable to voice how I felt in that moment to her. So I kept going, still shocked at what I had just heard. I had been referred to as a “wheelchair,” a metal contraption that helps me get around, and not the person that I am. To the counselor, I was only an object that her campers might run into. 

I know that her words were not intended to affect me in that way, nor that she was trying to objectify me. However, words hurt, I’ve learned. In this case, they signify something that I have felt since becoming paralyzed at six years old. The first thing that many people notice about me is my wheelchair and true, it is a shiny thing that I’m riding around on, but its not the only interesting thing about me. Many times, strangers will come up to me and ask “what happened” or make jokes like “don’t go speeding in that thing!” Maybe they’re being friendly or making conversation but once they get the information about my disability, the conversation is over and I feel like all I am to that person is my chair. And I’m so much more. My wheelchair has become a large part of who I am but its not all of it. Yes, I’m proud that I can do a wheelie, but I’m even more proud that I get good grades in school, or that I have a job that I absolutely love. My wheelchair didn’t play a role in any of those accomplishments.  

Language matters and it’s up to our society to change it.  I’m not a wheelchair. My name is Alex and I’m a student, daughter, friend, sister, wheelchair-user.