- By Laurie Watanabe
- Mar 01, 2010
Of all the emotions we humans are capable of, I think pity might be the most
If I’m shivering and coughing with the flu, I don’t mind pity… especially if it motivates
someone to make me chicken soup. But generally speaking, pity is irritating
because it’s useless. It makes us shake our heads and murmur sadly instead of doing
something useful. Pity doesn’t drive us forward; it immobilizes us.
What made me ascend this soapbox? While searching for artwork to go with our
story on “The Other Benefits of Proper Positioning” (page s12), I paged through the
offerings on a Web site that provides images and illustrations for publication. Since our
story discusses how seating & positioning affects daily activities of living, I wanted
images of wheelchair users eating, brushing teeth, washing hands, playing with
Instead, I discovered that searching under “wheelchair” will result in images that
largely fall into one of two categories:
- Pitiful, Dependent Wheelchair User: The subject stares sadly into space, or
through a door/window at the outside world, or at people having fun. Why can’t the
person join in? Apparently, because the theme is exclusion. And possibly because
some photographers aren’t aware that wheelchair users can venture outside.
- Inspirational Wheelchair User: The subject displays over-the-top joy, often with
arms raised triumphantly, for no perceivable reason. Subset: Wheelchair user, arms
raised, after leaving the wheelchair behind.
I browsed through hundreds of images, and none showed wheelchair users doing
the everyday tasks that crowd my day. Wheelchair users don’t seem to need to eat;
there were no photos of them in the kitchen or in restaurants while making conversation
over coffee or spaghetti. Also, they don’t seem to put on jackets, brush their hair,
take out the trash, go to school or feed the cat.
I know those wouldn’t make for high-excitement photos, but don’t they send a
more accurate message about people who use assistive technology? What message do
we send when the only photos available of wheelchair users show them uniformly
distressed? Are we implying that wheelchair users should expect and demand less out
of life than able-bodied peers?
Our annual Seating & Positioning Handbook seeks to fight that tide by celebrating
the many possibilities that assistive technology can offer…especially when wielded by
seating & mobility professionals working hand in hand with clients and caregivers.
How appropriate that this Handbook will be distributed at the International Seating
Symposium, which takes place in Vancouver at the same time that top wheelchair
athletes in the world are competing.
You’re fighting the “pity” tide, too, by advocating for and creating seating & mobility
systems that help your clients to do what they want and need to do every day. That
way, they can leave the pity to those people with narrow minds and preconceived
notions of what wheelchair users can accomplish.
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Canadian and international readers, please send your contact information to
This article originally appeared in the Seating & Positioning Handbook: March 2010 issue of Mobility Management.
Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.