What life is really like for Australian wheelchair users | Samaritans

Man sitting in wheelchair

Most Australians have no idea about what life is like for someone who is confined to a wheelchair.

Many of us see and interact with wheelchair users on an almost daily basis, but very few Aussies have a genuine understanding of the realities of day-to-day life in a chair.

For many wheelchair users, physical disability and mental health challenges go hand in hand. Inaccessible buildings and venues are a constant burden, affecting quality of life and reinforcing the fact that non-disabled citizens don’t understand what it’s like to be in a wheelchair.

A survey by the deaf/blind charity, Sense, discovered that a quarter of disabled people feel isolated and misunderstood. These intense feelings of loneliness or being left out often lead to anxiety and depression.

Recently, The ABC aired an episode of popular web series “You Can’t Ask That” which talked candidly about what it’s like to be in a wheelchair.

The wheelchair-using interviewees answered questions normally considered too “awkward” or “uncomfortable” for most Australians to have asked.

The program manages to set the record straight about what it’s like to be a wheelchair user by tackling the important issues head on.

Questions were submitted anonymously online by a range of different inquisitive Australians.

Here’s a quick snapshot of the most surprising, entertaining and insightful moments from the episode.

#1. “What are the perks of life in a wheelchair?”

The interviewees had loads of fun with this question, talking about the times they were able to get into venues early, and for one lucky participant the unexpected benefits reached a whole new level.

“I remember travelling on airplanes on the days I needed to be physically lifted and I got to travel first class! First class on the plane!” Neil Lillecrapp reminisced.

However, each and every guest reminded viewers that special treatment isn’t always welcomed or required by wheelchair users.

“There are some people that get really annoyed when people treat them differently, like offer them to skip the line,” Jo Berry said.

“I get it, they don’t want to be patronised but at the same time… appreciate the kind gesture.”

“There’s that little bell ringing [when being given special treatment], ‘poor unfortunate cripple’… it’s a dilemma!” Neil laughed.

This insight shares an important lesson. Wheelchair users value their independence like any other Aussie. For sure – offer assistance and help, but don’t take it personally if the offer is swiftly declined.

#2. “How do you feel when someone says you’re an inspiration?”

According to Jo, this is a really divisive issue for people with disabilities.

A lot of the interviewees found it frustrating to be “congratulated” or considered “inspiring” by strangers just for being out on the street.

“When I got my PhD, people said to me ‘you’ve inspired me to study more’ and I’m like, ‘sweet, awesome!’” Dr George Taleporos said.

“When they don’t know you, see you on the street and they’re like ‘you’re an inspiration’… clearly you’re just inspired by the fact that I’m breathing.”

Most wheelchair users are perfectly able to work, have relationships and take care of themselves. Most of the interviewees agreed that being considered inspirational for getting out of bed in the morning was disheartening.

#3. “Do you care if people used the disabled toilet?”

WC Toilet Sign

“You don’t want to use a disabled toilet, it won’t flush. You want to use an accessible toilet,” Hon. Kelly Vincent MLC joked.

The interviewees had loads of stories about catching able bodied people using the disabled toilets. Jo said the funniest part is seeing them put on a fake limp in a pitiful attempt to make up for their behaviour.

Most agreed it’s okay to use the accessible toilets if there’s a long line to the bathroom and you’re desperate.

But wheelchair users find it annoying and even offensive when people use the disabled toilets for no compelling reason. There’s just no excuse when people are just cutting a line, fixing their hair or doing their… business.

If you’re going to use the disabled bathroom, save it for emergencies – or better yet, don’t use them at all.

Wheelchair users are some of the most misunderstood, marginalised citizens of Australia. Every day they face adversity from inaccessible locations and the insensitivity of the uneducated.

The only thing that follows adversity is isolation, loneliness and frustration. The only way to grow from this is through reliable, solid support.

If you need support in any capacity, Samaritans is here to help.

We provide disability services in Newcastle, the Hunter Valley, Central Coast and Mid North Coast regions of New South Wales. For more information, head over to our Contact Us page and get in touch.