Not All Wheelchairs Are the Same. Our Politicians Need to Recognise That.

Insensitive photo-ops by those in power need to be a thing of the past.

Last year, we got a call from the Chief Minister’s Office in Uttarakhand, informing us that on the occasion of his birthday, the chief minister wished to donate wheelchairs to our children. Since these events are usually just glorified disabled photo-ops, we were sceptical.

“Well,” I said. “That’s very kind. But our kids come in all sorts of sizes and their chairs need to be specific for their disabilities.”

Silence on the line. “CM Sahib ka birthday kal hai, ji.” His birthday was the next day. “We have plenty of chairs. Please send ten children.”

I don’t know why we agreed, but we sent those ten kids. The chief minister was, of course, hours behind schedule. He turned up at his own birthday party very, very late. Our kids had been waiting patiently and they were so excited to meet their elected leader.

Also read: Activists Hope Standardisation of Indian Sign Language Will Pave Way for Inclusivity

Kids are so sweet, so innocent. They don’t realise when they are being used, they don’t understand what is happening when they are simply photo-ops, when one disabled child is as good as another. “JUST GIVE ME SOME DISABLED CHILDREN!”

A child in an adult wheelchair. Photo: Manik Mandal

Me? I get angry. Because one disabled kid is not the same as another. They are all unique, with individual families who love them. They are different shapes and sizes and they need wheelchairs for different reasons. What no kid needs is a wheelchair designed for a generic adult. Here’s how ridiculous that looks:

This child’s head is leaning against the chair’s arm rest!

We don’t expect every child to wear the same size shoes and we wouldn’t dress a five-year-old girl in a 16-year-old boy’s clothes. Yet for wheelchairs: “Hey! Whatever!”

We’ve all had shoes that don’t quite fit. Blisters on the heels. Pinched toes. Too tight in the instep. How we hate those shoes! Every step is painful. We wish we’d never bought them.

And we’ve all had outfits that just didn’t work: wrong shape, wrong colour, wrong fabric. Wearing a sari for a mountain trek. Wearing a track suit to a wedding. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

A wheelchair is a disabled person’s ticket to ride. It’s her mobility. It’s his freedom. Hey, Mr Chief Minister, it’s got to fit. And it’s got to feel right and look good. And because it’s an extension of a person’s body, it should not come with a “Donated By” tag as if it actually belongs to the chief minister or the State Bank or the Rotary Club or whichever company paid for it.

So, happy birthday, Mr Chief Minister, but sorry. This is not about you.

This is about people and their right to move, to be independent, to feel comfortable in their own skin. The perfect wheelchair does exist, but it’s not going to be available tomorrow, just in time to be handed out at a command performance event, for the benefit of photo-ops and political capital.

Also read: Schools Must Ensure That Moving Online Won’t Disadvantage Children With Special Needs

If you really want to celebrate with people who need wheelchairs, how about planning in advance? Ask those people themselves what they need because they know exactly what will work for where they live and what they want to do.

So from now on: don’t give disabled people a chair ten sizes too big or one with wheels meant for tarred roads when they live in a village. It makes you look silly and it angers a potential voter.

And if you left your birthday planning till the last moment (again), just give cash. Give those disabled people an envelope with a cheque inside as if they are sensible citizens who know best what they need.

Because they are.

Jo McGowan Chopra is American by birth and a writer by profession. A mother of three, she has lived in India for the past 34 years with her Indian husband. She is co-founder and director of the Latika Roy Foundation, a voluntary organisation for children with disability in Dehradun. She blogs at www.latikaroy.org/jo.