Words That Bind
- By Laurie Watanabe
- Mar 01, 2016
I majored in writing. Words are important to me. The right ones empower, enlighten. The wrong ones mislead; they hurt. They teach us that things are true when they’re not. “Sticks and stones” is a conveniently reassuring thing to tell kids, but it’s a lie.
In January, a news story about Canadian Paralympic champion Bo Hedges crossed my desk. Hedges, a wheelchair basketball player, had participated in a story on positive body image for Now Toronto magazine. Like ESPN The Magazine’s famous Body Issue, participants in the Now Toronto article — including an expectant mother, a transgender activist, actresses, artists and journalists — posed nude. So there was Hedges, co-captain of his country’s wheelchair basketball team, with his chair and basketball and nothing else.
In the article, Hedges explains he didn’t think very often about his body until he fell out of a tree at age 13. Now, as an elite athlete who generates most of his income from basketball, Hedges pays very close attention to his body. As for his inclusion in “Love Your Body,” Hedges said in the article, “I’m also very aware that spinal cord injury is one of the more heteronormative-looking disabilities you can have, especially since only the lower portions of my body are affected. It’s very easy to make an athletic white male like me representative of disability and call it diversity. Still, I think showing disability in these pages is better than having none at all, and if I can show that I’m comfortable in my own skin, maybe it will inspire society to become comfortable with more atypical disabled bodies.”
I was impressed. Well, okay, first I had to look up “heteronormative” — it’s an adjective referring to the view that heterosexuality is “normal” or preferred — then I was impressed. Mr. Hedges is obviously intelligent, articulate and thoughtful, in addition to being a heckuva basketball player.
So how did People magazine describe Mr. Hedges in a headline?
“Transgender Burlesque Performer, Wheelchair-Bound Basketball Player and Pregnant Activist Pose Naked for Body Positivity.”
I just hated that, because bound conjures up ropes and chains and helplessness. I’ve seen wheelchair basketball players fly down the court, and bound is the last thing they are.
That same day, Time magazine ran this headline: “Woman Freezes to Death Trying to Rescue Wheelchair-Bound Husband.” And CBS Detroit ran the headline “Wheelchair-Bound Woman Found Dead After House Fire on Detroit’s West Side.”
How could anyone read those headlines and feel anything but horror for people who use wheelchairs? How could anyone read those headlines and not reduce an entire community of very real people to a desperate, pitiful stereotype?
Justin Richardson of Numotion, commenting on the People headline, said in a Tweet, “As a chair user, I loathe the lazy use of ‘wheelchair bound.’ As I say to my 3-year-old, ‘Use your words.’”
Justin is right. “Wheelchair bound” and its sister “confined to a wheelchair” are lazy. They’re inaccurate. And every time someone writes those words, readers’ misconceptions about wheelchair users become a little more entrenched. Would we be as accepting if writers so routinely stereotyped people of a certain gender, religion, ethnic group or sexual orientation?
As a writer, as someone who has seen people liberated by their mobility devices but who doesn’t see that truth in print often enough, I am ashamed.
This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Mobility Management.
Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.