Iain Lees-Galloway and Carmel Sepuloni on Seven Sharp

Why MPs playing wheelchair dress-ups is such a terrible idea

Our wheelchairs are not gimmicks to help you realise ‘how good you’ve got it’, writes Red Nicholson.

Yesterday, Labour ministers Carmel Sepuloni and Iain Lees-Galloway were invited by the Spinal Trust to spend the day in wheelchairs, in order to highlight the challenges a wheelchair user might face getting around parliament. A well-intentioned PR stunt that no politician, particularly given the fortnight Labour has had, could easily turn down. After all, how could anyone resist the temptation to make a gag about “sitting by his statements”, eh minister? That said, as a veteran wheelchair user myself, I reckon there is only one context in which it is OK to “have a go” in a wheelchair, and it is this:

  • You are a curious nine-year-old.

There is also one context where it might be considered a particularly bad look to be playing wheelchair dress-ups:

  • You are the minister for disability issues, seeking to understand the needs of disabled people.

I get the argument made in favour of these disability simulation activities: powerful individuals, given the opportunity to see things through the eyes of wheelchair users, find themselves profoundly moved by the experience, and decide to bring in new policies and programmes that change the game for the entire disability community.

Except, that isn’t how it works at all.

I should know: I’ve participated in enough well-intentioned wheelchair tours to have racked up numerous examples where such an exercise has the exact opposite effect. Instead, what usually happens is some variation of the following: the able-bodied people finish their circuit, they stand up, and say something to the effect of, “Well that was a damn sight harder than I thought it would be! Hats off to you lot!” Then they clap each other on the back as they sigh with relief, oblivious to the utter disbelief on the faces of nearby wheelchair users, watching on with barely disguised jealousy. If only it were so easy for us, we’d think.

At the same time, what also seems to happen in this moment is that the able-bodied participants are confronted with how different their lives would be if they ever needed to use a wheelchair for an extended period of time, and without the opt-out clause they so easily just employed. Understandably, this is a difficult and painful realisation, having to face up to their own mortality and potential loss of function. Fortunately for them, this moment is fleeting, and they are soon transported back to their functional reality, pushing this alternative disabled universe as far from their minds as possible, taking any thought of improving accessibility for others along with it. “That was hard enough to do for one day, imagine having to live like that! No thanks – next!”

Here’s the thing: Carmel Sepuloni, as minister for disability issues, should know better than this. Dressing up as a disabled person for an afternoon is no less disrespectful than if a Pākeha minister for Māori affairs thought it might be helpful to paint their skin brown for a day to better understand the needs of Māori. Or if a male minister for women’s issues wore a dress for an afternoon in order to appreciate the barriers facing women. The only difference here is that wheelchairs seem to have developed into some sort of whimsical lark for able-bodied people, as a “fun way to get around“, making this particular dress-up act somehow seem less offensive. It’s not.

The purpose of the stunt was, according to the Spinal Trust’s twitter account, to help the minister better understand the needs of disabled people. The minister herself said that sitting in the chair helped her to “gain some insight” into how accessible parliament is. But the minister shouldn’t have to play dress-ups to appreciate either of these things. In fact, there are already wheelchair users working in parliament, so if accessibility was of such concern, the minister could surely have respected these individuals’ lived experience enough to sit down and listen to their perspectives, instead of playing pretend for the day.

She certainly did seem moved by the experience, telling Māori Television, “When you’re in a wheelchair, you realise how inaccessible [parliament] is”. Whether this momentary appreciation of the barriers faced by wheelchair users translates into anything tangible remains to be seen, but I’m struck by how some able-bodied people feel the need to simulate the experience of disability for themselves before they’re prepared to accept that accessibility is an issue. Are disabled people not to be trusted? Is this whole accessibility thing just an elaborate hoax? Have we not been here before? As a wise individual on Twitter put it, “We should all just accept these issues exist without ‘trying it out’”.

The truth is, we need to become far more comfortable talking about diverse function and disability. We will all have whānau, lovers, friends and colleagues who are disabled. It’s important that we begin to grapple with the reality that many of us will, at some stage, become disabled, through injury or ageing. But that doesn’t mean dressing up like us for a Wednesday afternoon laugh. Instead, invite us to be part of the conversation, and listen when we tell you what life is like for us. Use your privilege to help build a more inclusive and accessible New Zealand, so that when your turn comes, the world is a little more manageable. Our wheelchairs are not gimmicks to help you realise “how good you’ve got it”. At the end of your simulation day, we don’t have the luxury of handing our wheelchairs back.


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