Someone posted recently about the crap people get for being fat AND disabled, especially fat chair users.
And I want to point out, as always, an observation I’ve noticed, like… I’ve discussed this with other chair users, when I was a chair user, and we’d all noticed it.
Which was that chair users tend more than you’d expect, towards both extremes of the human weight range. Like either fat or skinny. Especially powerchair users.
After talking with each other, we figured it was probably because of a couple of things:
1. Medical conditions that cause you to need a chair, can also cause you to be fat, or skinny.
2. Being immobilized a lot of the time (true of some manual chair users and most powerchair users) can cause you to gain weight. And if you don’t gain weight from being immobilized, it may be because you have a condition that’s going to limit your weight gain anyway, making you unusually thin.
In other words, if you ACTUALLY see a lot of fat people out there in chairs, it’s not because they’re using the chairs because they’re fat and/or lazy (which most people see as equivalent), it’s most likely because whatever caused them to need the chairs also caused them to gain weight, or the immobility involved in being a full-time powerchair user caused them to gain weight.
If someone’s genuinely fat enough to need a wheelchair, then that is a disability. Because the definition of needing a wheelchair, is being unable to sufficiently get around without one. It’s not limited to certain conditions but not others. So when being fat is the main condition causing the situation, it still fucking counts as a legitimate disability.
(And don’t tell me that it’s different because “they brought it on themselves”. Even if that were true – and it usually isn’t – then you might as well tell people with emphysema due to smoking to stop using oxygen or wheelchairs if they can’t walk far. And you might as well tell all those young male paraplegics who seem to be everyone’s go-to example of a legitimate wheelchair user, that those of them – a lot of them – who got that way due to youthful daredevil bullshit, should give up their chairs. Just… No. And don’t even pretend you treat all these situations equally, because you clearly don’t.)
But also, something I’ve noticed? People who have never been fat, have an incredibly screwed-up notion of how fat you have to be before you have enough trouble walking places that you would even be tempted to try a wheelchair.
First off, manual wheelchairs are incredibly difficult to push, whether you use your arms, your legs, or both. And walking is almost always easier unless you have a condition that seriously limits your ability to walk without encountering problems. Powerchairs are not physically difficult but they are cognitively demanding on the order of driving a car over ice, especially if you have crappy sidewalks to deal with, which nearly everyone does. I actually found using a powerchair too exhausting sometimes, when I used one – and I had a deluxe model that would tilt me back into an almost lying-down position so that my body didn’t even have to strain to pump blood. (I had undiagnosed and untreated adrenal insufficiency and myasthenia gravis combining to wreak havoc with my body’s ability to move or be upright at all.)
Like… The moment that I could walk again, I did walk again, because it was just plain easier than using a wheelchair. I never hesitated. It wasn’t because of stigma. It was because it’s just so much easier to walk if you’re at all able to walk. Using a wheelchair is in no way the lazy option – even though it kind of should be, if they were designing them better. (Because it should take as little effort as possible. But it ’s very hard to design something artificially that’s as effortless to do as walking is for the average nondisabled person. Especially when they’re not trying hard enough to design that way anyway – most assistive tech is designed more for the benefit of professionals than of disabled people.)
…even a relative of mine, someone who had never been fat, suggested at one point that maybe my weight was a factor in what was keeping me bedridden and in a powerchair. This was before the severe adrenal insufficiency and myasthenia gravis were diagnosed, obviously. But they actually thought this.
Understand: I was about 220 pounds when they said this to me.
220 pounds is nowhere near the weight range where being fat affects your ability to do ordinary things like walk around the house without collapsing into a limp puddle and being literally unable to push yourself up again, and then going hot and cold and throwing up and geting all kinds of weird medical symptoms, and potentially risking your life.
Like, it’s nowhere near the range where you’d even get winded doing ordinary things, let alone the life-threatening symptoms I was experiencing.
Yet being fat was the first thing this person thought of when they thought of my having severe exercise intolerance. (Which, yes, is an actual medical symptom, not a synonym for being out of shape or lazy.)
I have a friend who is much fatter than I’ve ever been, and also disabled. But before they were severely physically disabled (they have always been physically disabled to some extent, but only now is it severe) they were a hard-core cyclist with incredible stamina. Not someone who needed a wheelchair to get around because they were fat. And this was in the 300-400 pound range. Which is getting to where some people might have physical problems because of their weight, but it’s by no means universal even at that weight.
I’ve never even approached that – the most I’ve weighed in my entire life was 245 pounds, and most of the time I’ve been in a chair I’ve been in the 170-220 pound range, with my weight fluctuating wildly at times because of medical issues. And yet I’ve had people assume that my being fat was why iw as in a wheelchair.
And I think that people who have never been fat, greatly overestimate the amount that someone’s weight has an effect on their stamina overall. Like, it can have an effect on your stamina, but not to the degree these people are assuming. I’ve never had my weight significantly affect my stamina. Never. I’ve had disabilities severely affect my stamina, but the moment those disabilities are mitigated in some way, the stamina problems go away and my weight has never been a barrier to my ability to walk around.
(Also I think thin people don’t estimate people’s weight very accurately to begin with. People online who have seen me in photos routinely describe me as at least 100 pounds heavier than I am. Like when I was 190 pounds, people said I was 300 pounds, and when I was 245, people said I was 400 pounds. This is like, not a little overestimation, but a huge overestimation. And I always wondered why that was, because it seemed pretty consistent. Like the majority of the time people were giving me massive amounts of crap for weighing “300 pounds”, I hadn’t even reached 200 yet. At this point BTW I’m about 195, despite a tube-fed diet of less than 1500 calories most days. Go figure.)
As I said though – if someone’s fat enough that being fat is the main reason they use a wheelchair, that’s absolutely a legit reason to use a wheelchair, and a legit disability.
Also, honestly? There shouldn’t be illegitimate reasons to use a wheelchair. Because there’s nothing about a wheelchair that truly differentiates it from a bicycle. Nobody measures your ability to walk a particular distance before they’ll let you use a bicycle to go an even further distance faster. But they do it all the time with wheelchairs.
There was ANOTHER post recently, all about that – about why it’s damn near impossible to apply the concept of “appropriation” to assistive technology, and why people shouldn’t even try, because all they end up doing is unmasking their own ableism in the process.
It’d be really cool to see the post about fatphobia in the disability community combined with the “why you can’t actually appropriate a wheelchair” post, because the two realy go together. (I really hate the way the word “appropriation” has come to be used in ways it was never intended. It’s supposed to be about stealing elements of someone’s culture that are not supposed to be used by people outside of that culture. It really doesn’t apply to assistive technology unless you have some very fucked-up ideas about disability and assistive technology. Which lots of people unfortunately do, including lots of disabled people who get weirdly possessive about technology that in no way is or should be exclusive to our use. A lot of advances in technology in general for all people have been propelled by advances in assistive technology – this was even highlighted at an MIT conference I went to that invited companies from all over the place to base innovations for all people on innovations developed for disabled people. Don’t get me started on the fatphobia THERE, though – I remember being the only fat person sitting in on a conversation where people were discussing ways to build uncomfortable chairs so call center workers would be “forced to stand up and take breaks so they’d lose weight”, which managed to be ableist, classist, and fatphobic all at the same time, as well as showing that none of them had ever worked in a call center, because you’d get fired if you actually took those breaks.)
One thing I’d say though is that the idea that everyone everywhere regardless of disability has judged fat wheelchair users… That was in that original post. I’d say that idea is almost true but not entirely true. Because I can’t recall ever in my life, even for a second, looking at a fat person in a wheelchair and thinking “That person is just lazy because they’re fat and shouldn’t be in a wheelchair.” And I’m not saying that to sound better than people – nobody can entirely help the thoughts that flit through their head for a second, and we all have internalized prejudice of one kind or another. But I’ve just never had that particular manifestation of that particular prejudice. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone there.
OTOH I have a crapload of internalized fatphobia that I point at myself, not about wheelchair use but about other things, and I have never figured out how to get rid of it.
TL;DR: Don’t judge fat wheelchair users. They’re likely either fat because of the same things that put them in the chair, or fat because they’re immobilized so much. But even if they’re in the chair for being fat, that’s a legit disability. And people should be able to use a chair for any reason they want. Including that they just like wheelchairs. There’s nothing inherent to a wheelchair that says that only certain kinds of people should use it. Also chairs are much harder to use that you’d think, so most people who use them actually need them, because it’s way easier just to walk even if you don’t walk very well. It takes a pretty severe disability to make using a chair the more attractive option, and some people resist using one even then.