How to answer kids wheelchair questions: why are you in a wheelchair?
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Ten frequent (and sometimes funny) wheelchair questions kids ask
Kids are curious, especially when they meet someone they see as different. Here are ten wheelchair questions kids ask me about my chair.
No matter what time period or what part of the world you’re in, there’s one thing that remains constant: kids are curious and random creatures. When I’m out and about, I often hear children ask their parents (or grandparents or cool aunt/uncle, etc.) wheelchair questions. It’s not surprising, considering it’s the pink elephant in the room (emphasis on the pink; it’s the best color, don’t @ me).
This summer, I spent eight weeks working with kids at a camp, so I had the perfect opportunity to answer a lot of questions. When I hear this at places like the dollar section of Target or standing in line at Panera, it’s an awkward situation because they’re asking the adult with them. Even in the South, the land of the unsolicited comments and inquiries, my wheelchair seems to be the one thing that’s too intrusive to ask about.
Here are some of the frequently asked wheelchair questions I get from children:
Why are you in a wheelchair?
Because I can’t walk. My legs don’t work. That’s the most basic response I give to younger kids’ wheelchair questions. Even though I’m a writer and fully support encouraging kids’ imaginations, I prefer to answer as factually as I can rather than something whimsical like, “a fairy made me this way” or something like that. With anything related to disabilities or other medical conditions, I’d rather have children understand early on why we’re different, without the frills.
How do you move that?
I explain that I use my controller, and it’s like moving a character in a video game. Usually, they get closer, and I say, “You can look, but don’t touch,” even though they sometimes want to try to move it. My chair is a 300-pound machine, so you can probably imagine how many pancake children there would be if one of them decided to try and move my chair. What I do is move forward, back, and side-to-side, then I demonstrate what all the buttons do and show them how I can raise my chair up and down and lean back. They think it’s basically the coolest thing ever.
Do you have a horn?
How do you charge it?
My power did get extremely low during camp, so I had to charge while I was there a few times. They did ask if I was charging it when I was plugged in, so I, of course, said I was. But when I wasn’t charging, and they asked how I did it, I pointed to the plugin thingamajig under my controller and explained how I plug it into the wall at night.
How did you get here? (Regarding camp)
My mom has a minivan, and she lifts me into a regular seat while my chair goes in the back, where we have the last two seats taken out. Sometimes my dad takes me places this way. The kids’ mouths drop whenever I tell them my parents lift me, which I find funny. But it’s true that some disabled adults need caretakers to lift them. I occasionally explain that some people have special vans, which means you don’t need to get out of your chair because the chair can be wheeled into the van.
How do you sleep?
This is related to the last wheelchair question since the answer is pretty much the same. I sleep in a bed, which my parents carry me into. Children seem amazed that I do, in fact, get out of my chair.
How do you go to the bathroom?
I tell them that this wheelchair question isn’t something I’m comfortable sharing, but I do feel like there should be information that’s easily accessible, so children understand the different ways disabled people use the bathroom.
Why are your feet purple?
Okay, this isn’t related to my chair per se, but it’s related to my disability. This is the hardest question for me to answer because it’s because my circulation is bad in my legs. It’s a little easier with the older kids, like around 9+, since I can explain what circulation is. However, for younger children, unless that child is some science prodigy, I must talk about how blood flows through our body. It flows good in the rest of my body, which is why it’s white, but it flows poorly in my legs, which is why they’re purple. Even then, it’s still a tricky concept for some of them to understand, so I hope they remember, even vaguely, what I’ve told them about my legs and hope it clicks once they learn about circulation in school.
Were you born in that?
Saving my favorite questions for last! I deeply regret not having ever replied with, “Yes, I came out wheels first.” Maybe one day. It’s hard to tell whether they’re asking if I was literally born in my chair, or if that’s their way of asking if I was born disabled. All I can say is that I’m sure my mom is glad I wasn’t born in a wheelchair. What I reply with is that I was born not being able to walk, but I’ve been in a chair since I was 2.
Why is it pink?
Because it’s my favorite color. Pink chairs are awesome.
Whenever a child asked a lot of questions about my wheelchar, I made sure to tell their parents whenever they picked them up, in case they might have more questions at home. Also, I want to encourage more discussions about disabilities, so they’ll be more understanding and inclusive as adults. In an ideal situation, the parents would show them videos or other age-appropriate resources to help answer their questions.
I want children to ask questions and get exposure to different kinds of disabilities, but I know that every situation and disabled person is different. Some people might not be open to any questions at all, while others are totally 100% okay with it. Personally, if I’m in a role where I’m an educator of sorts, whether that’s a camp counselor, teacher, or speaker, etc., I’m okay with most questions.
If I am out and about, then it’s better to ask if it’s okay if the child asks a question, rather than answering the question without fully knowing the answer, and potentially spreading misinformation. And I imagine this is probably the case with most disabled people. I remember being at the mall one time, and a girl asked her grandmother why I was in a wheelchair, and they weren’t. The grandmother’s response was, “Because we’re blessed.” No. Just no.
If you’re with a child and they ask you a question about disabilities that you can’t answer, but you’re not comfortable asking the disabled person or vice-versa, then I highly encourage looking for educational information at home. Even though it’s more work, it is much better than spreading ideas that being disabled is a huge burden and that we can’t do anything. It’s also essential for children to know why some people are disabled, and some are not; that some are born that way, and others become disabled later in life.
Children’s minds are wide-open, so it’s the perfect opportunity to show them how disabled people are just regular people, but we have to do some things differently
August Pritchett is a disability advocate, a young adult historical fiction writer, obsessed with the 19th and early 20th centuries.