While my relatives were here last week, we took the kids to the local children’s museum. I was sitting with the three year-old, who I’ll call Jon*, in a little alcove while he played with a super-cool medieval castle, knights and even a few dragons. After a while, a little boy, perhaps seven or eight, came in pushing himself in a wheelchair. I became a little bit flustered. What would I say to Jon if he asked about the boy with the wheelchair? I wasn’t sure how to explain to a preschooler that some people need to use wheelchairs for mobility. I didn’t want to just say, “His legs don’t work so he needs a wheelchair” because what if the boy had a heart problem or what if he could walk with crutches or a walker but couldn’t walk long distances? That would apply in either case or a hundred others.
I was really frustrated with myself because I didn’t know what to tell Jon. I didn’t want to offend the other little boy by saying the wrong thing because I know that non-disabled people say stupid things about disabilities every single minute of every single day. While I was trying to figure it all out, the boy got up out of his chair to get a better look at his train exhibit and then sat back down. Now I definitely didn’t know what to tell Jon about the boy’s disability. What kind of condition did he have that allowed him partial mobility? Luckily, the boy soon wheeled himself around and left the room. Jon had been so engrossed with the knights and dragons that he never even noticed the other boy.
Later on, I was exploring the museum with Jon’s five year-old brother, Don*, when we visited the “medical center” exhibit. This included a dentist’s office, doctor’s office and exam area, surgery area including a cloth “cadaver” that the kids could open up and look at the body parts, and a hollowed out ambulance with flashing lights that actually worked. (Don loved this.) The medical center was pretty cool and I thought it was one of the best parts of the museum.
However, I have one major complaint. The exhibit also included two wheelchairs that the kids could sit in and push themselves around in. Yeah. It was about then I noticed the boy from the other room walking around without any difficulty. He had just been “playing” at being disabled. Other children treated the wheelchairs like toys, too. The museum had a couple of bikes sitting around for the kids to ride and they played with the wheelchairs in the same manner as the bikes, as if they were a moving toy that they could tire of and cast aside. And that’s the problem.
Wheelchairs aren’t toys. For people living with paralysis and other mobility impairments, wheelchairs are a vital lifeline to independence. But society doesn’t see wheelchairs that way. They see them as a sign of dependence, something the “wheelchair-bound” or those “confined to a wheelchair” have to use. In fact, the children’s museum reinforces this prejudice by teaching kids to associate wheelchairs with hospitals and sickness.
There was no education about the wheelchairs. The kids weren’t taught about the wheels, locks, handles or footplates. They didn’t learn about who uses a wheelchair and when and why. Forget about people with disabilities. They didn’t even learn about why they might need to use a wheelchair at the doctor’s office or hospital. All they learned was that it was a chair propelled by wheels and that when they were sick of riding in it, they could hop out and move on to something else.
It all just gave me an icky feeling. It felt disrespectful to all the kids who can’t jump out of the chair when they decide they want a different “toy” to play with. Pretending a wheelchair is a toy felt disrespectful to all the kids for whom a wheelchair means the independence to move from room to room at home and school. They can hang out with their friends on the sidewalk and the playground.
When you have your own wheelchair, you control where it goes. You are in charge of your own movement, even if you can’t control your body. In other words, Wheelchairs are serious business. They aren’t symbols of dependence but independence. They aren’t toys.
While I had a great time at the children’s museum, the wheelchairs in the medical office exhibit were a huge missed opportunity for kids to learn about disability.
Here are a couple photos of the medical center exhibit, which I “borrowed” from the museum website: