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June is a season of graduations, so it’s also time for the mainstream media to gush over a wheelchair user who walks across the stage, often with the help of an exoskeleton, walker or other device. Past news headlines, complete with videos, have said, Man Confined to Wheelchair Walks at Graduation (CNN) and Teen in Wheelchair Stuns School by Walking at Graduation (Daily Mail). Much social media celebration ensues.
Hey, school is hard, and graduation is grand. So if graduates want to cartwheel across the stage, I think they should go for it. And if wheelchair users want to walk to get their diplomas, terrific. I’m happy for you.
Still, there is subtle ableism in every standing ovation that happens just because a wheelchair user didn’t have to use a wheelchair to get across the stage. Shouldn’t we really be applauding, you know, the earning of the diploma? Isn’t that the real accomplishment?
Earlier this year, Chuck Aoki, a two-time American Paralympian in wheelchair rugby who’s working on a Ph.D. in international relations, reTweeted a video of a wheelchair-using groom who literally Velcro’d himself to a groomsman on either side. The three stood up, the groom’s arms around his groomsmen’s shoulders, and the bride danced with her husband.
A Twitter user said, “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen” and attached the weeping-face emoji. Aoki (@Aoki5Chuck) said in his reTweet, “Why is standing seen as so critical to one’s identity? The gesture by his friends is nice, certainly, but the reaction to this is just another example of how ableist our society is.”
In other words, it’s nice when people who use wheelchairs can go to school, graduate, make friends, get married and start families, but what we really need to see is them standing up and walking. That’s what we’re truly applauding.
Why? Is it because deep down, despite all the politically correct talk about inclusion these days, people who don’t use wheelchairs are scared silly of people who do? Are they scared of the technology, or scared that people who use wheelchairs are somehow inherently different? Is that why people without disabilities are so often bizarre around people with disabilities? (Type #abledsareweird into an Internet browser, and let your head-shaking commence.)
Until we as a society get to the point that we equally applaud graduates who walk, roll, and cartwheel while getting their diplomas, we are still being exclusionary and pointing out some people’s imagined otherness. Which means we need to go back to school, because we have more learning to do.