Can we please stop using the term "wheelchair bound" on MetaFilter? July 13, 2023 11:27 AM   Subscribe

Recently I have noticed several different commenters on MetaFilter using the phrase "wheelchair bound." This is a phrase that a lot of wheelchair users (including myself) find deeply objectionable, as wheelchairs actually give us freedom of movement compared to not having a wheelchair. (Also, a lot of wheelchair users are ambulatory wheelchair users, e.g. they can sometimes walk a very short distance.) The preferred term is "wheelchair user". If using it as an adjective, you can say "wheelchair using", e.g. "My wheelchair-using girlfriend."
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries to Etiquette/Policy at 11:27 AM (43 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite

Hell yeah!

That's really all I wanted to say, but this article is an intro to wheelchairs beyond the boring hospital transit chair most people think of.
posted by momus_window at 1:01 PM on July 13 [16 favorites]

Certainly, we can do that! This is good to know. There are so many layers of ableism baked into regular language that it's easy to miss something like this without a heads up.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:27 PM on July 13 [35 favorites]

I'm perfectly fine avoiding the terminology, and will do so myself.

I am uncomfortable with this becoming something that moderators use to determine the acceptability of content. I don't think this is what you're asking for, but I want to make sure there is no consensus developed that such terminology should result in moderator action.
posted by saeculorum at 1:30 PM on July 13 [18 favorites]

I agree with not using "wheelchair bound".

However my preferred phrasing is "someone who uses a wheelchair" rather than "a wheelchair user", such as "My girlfriend uses a wheelchair".

Perhaps there is some geographic or other difference between the use of the two, a linguistic difference depending on the type of English, or a connection to person first language?

I'd also like people to avoid phrasing that in general implies the passivity or limitation of someone else, like "confined to a wheelchair" or "wheelchair dependent". Though when talking to or about someone else I'll reflect the language they use about themselves, as with any other characteristic, I bristle hearing someone describe me this way, as someone who uses both a manual wheelchair and a powerchair, and doesn't feel at all confined or bound to them.
posted by narcissus_and_ambrosia at 2:44 PM on July 13 [7 favorites]

I am uncomfortable with this becoming something that moderators use to determine the acceptability of content.

I am very comfortable with that.
posted by box at 3:34 PM on July 13 [22 favorites]

"someone who uses a wheelchair" rather than "a wheelchair user"
This is really good advice and applies to many, many situations. It's the same as saying a 'person with a disability' rather than a 'disabled person' because the first emphasises the person, while the second emphasises the disability.

There's rarely a need to use either and just 'person' will almost always do the job, unless the modifier has some central part to play in what you're saying. A lot of people seem to want to categorise people based on some arbitrary characteristic rather than just seeing them as a person.
posted by dg at 3:44 PM on July 13 [7 favorites]

Thanks for pointing out the implications of this usage, chariot pulled by cassowaries!
posted by mittens at 3:48 PM on July 13 [1 favorite]

I liked that article about illustrations. I am an ambulatory wheelchair user, and I use a cane, a rollator, a transport/hospital style chair, and a mobility scooter, depending on circumstances.

Until recently, I had a GRIT Freedom Chair, a wonderful off-road wheelchair. Highly recommended! Realized that over the past year, I wasn't finding uses for it, so I am just now in the process of getting it to a new home with a friend's uncle, who will use it for gardening.

It is always useful, when talking about people using technology to accomplish things, to think about describing them as people who do that thing using that tool. I recently saw an article that described Stephen Hawking as "unable to speak without the use" of his synthetic voice thingy. But you could say, "Stephen Hawking spoke with the use of" his synthetic voice thingy. Like, you could say of me that I can't run errands or commute to work on public transit without a mobility scooter, or you could say of me that I do run errands and commute to work on public transit using my mobility scooter. You can think of adaptive devices as tools that people use to accomplish things that are in many way just like the tools that are more widely used to accomplish those same things. For instance, depending on the distance and my energy level, I travel on foot (within the confines of my home), in a wheelchair, on my scooter, on a bus, in a car, sometimes on a train. Another person might travel by walking, by biking, by bus, by car, by commuter train. See what I'm doing? I think this helps us to see ourselves as on connected and having much in common rather than as discrete lumps of humanity that are or are not disabled, are or are not wheelchair users, etc.
posted by Well I never at 4:01 PM on July 13 [58 favorites]

Seconding 'person with x' or 'person who uses y', though I'll happily mirror anyone using 'wheelchair-using'/'wheelchair user' if that's their preference.

I learned this a while ago in road use advocacy, when we started saying 'person on a bike' and 'person in a car' instead of 'cyclist' vs 'driver', because it often helps to stress that these are all people we're talking about first and foremost. But even primed with that it took me a long time to remove 'wheelchair-bound' and similar phrasings from my language. The things we grow up with dig in deep, and because I'd been around people using wheelchairs throughout my childhood, I figured I had nothing left to learn. Not any truer for me than it ever is for anyone.

Thanks, chariot pulled by cassowaries.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 4:17 PM on July 13 [10 favorites]

Identity first vs People First

tl;dr : Ask
posted by lalochezia at 6:10 PM on July 13 [44 favorites]

I love this, thank you.
posted by eirias at 6:42 PM on July 13 [2 favorites]

Huge yes to this! Thanks!
posted by chococat at 6:45 PM on July 13 [2 favorites]

Another Wheelchair user here! I appreciate you saying something, as it always gets an eye roll (at best) from me.

And for everyone who is pushing person first in the comments, I dunno maybe it’s worth noting that the person who made the post has led the way?
posted by Bottlecap at 7:04 PM on July 13 [16 favorites]

Yeah person first language can be really problematic. Definitely should not assume that's what people prefer.
posted by Zumbador at 1:00 AM on July 14 [14 favorites]

Hadn't really considered this, but it's obvious when pointed out. I will endeavour to do as asked, and thank you - I'd've likely kept putting my foot in my mouth occasionally otherwise.
posted by Dysk at 1:21 AM on July 14

Mark me down as having a strong distaste for person-first language unless used in broad hypotheticals like “person who can become pregnant”. I get why sometimes it’s taught to people to talk that way but in practice it’s usually just a way for people to mark themselves as detached from the demographic at hand.

As for the original point about wheelchair users, I appreciate the reminder. I’m an AskMe person and the answers are often rife with casual ableism. Sometimes it doesn’t flow well to point it out since we should be addressing the asker and not the other answerers, but this MeTa will be an easy thing to link to in a parenthetical. For anyone who finds they have trouble nudging their language in this direction, it may help to try to mentally reclassify wheelchairs into a group of assistive devices alongside mobility aids and prosthetics. This is something I’ve discussed with my parents and it’s helped them as they age into needing things like walkers and hearing aids. We have had lots of comparative language conversations. The language used for senior care vs the language used among disabled people of a younger and/or more activist demographic is stark.
posted by Mizu at 1:45 AM on July 14 [19 favorites]

Thanks for this - it's been on my mind as well, as I've noticed a couple of those comments lately too. It would be great to see this particular bit of language fall out of fashion.

We're never going to solve the identity-first vs people-first dilemma here - hell, I can't solve it in my house, we've got one of each over here. Asking first when possible and just being thoughtful about how you use language to describe disabilities when you can't, will get you a long way. But "wheelchair bound" is one of the clearer examples of "nah, just don't use that one unless someone specifically tells you that they prefer it for themselves" that we have.

In case you're someone for whom it's useful to have an authoritative resource to point to if e.g. you want to have this conversation with anyone else in your life, here's the National Center on Disability and Journalism style guide on this topic.
posted by Stacey at 5:04 AM on July 14 [14 favorites]

I am uncomfortable with this becoming something that moderators use to determine the acceptability of content.

Just as a point of reference, often what mods will do if there is time is just reach out to a user who may be using a term that the community has concerns about (often through flag-with-note, let mods know, thank you) and see if they'd be up for a friendly edit. Also the community is welcome to correct in-thread which is one of the few "all comments must answer the question" exceptions if it's a short constructive correction. I am strongly in favor of this initial request thanks for making it.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:06 AM on July 14 [20 favorites]

It's a very simple change to make, and is more accurate, precise, and respectful. I hope people will find it easy to adopt.
posted by Miko at 10:31 AM on July 14 [4 favorites]

This just makes a ton of sense. A wheelchair is a tool that people can use; it's not something that restricts people's movements, it's the exact opposite. Thanks for posting this!
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:55 PM on July 14 [5 favorites]

I am uncomfortable with this becoming something that moderators use to determine the acceptability of content. I don't think this is what you're asking for, but I want to make sure there is no consensus developed that such terminology should result in moderator action.
posted by saeculorum
saeculorum, I think maybe you meant to note your concern about, for example, situations where a MeFite's front page post links to an article or video that uses the unwanted phrase.

Is that right? Because I think what other people have been talking about in this thread is how we react when we read a post or comment on MetaFilter where a MeFite has written the objectionable phrase.
posted by brainwane at 4:27 PM on July 14 [3 favorites]

Is that right?

No. I think, in general, MetaFilter has too many unwritten rules. I don't want the site to continue to develop unwritten rules that push away new users. I'm happy to discuss more, but that's a derail from this thread.

As stated above, I am not defending the use of this, or other, phrases, and I have no interest in using it myself.
posted by saeculorum at 10:46 PM on July 14 [7 favorites]

We could like, write this rule down, that should help with that?
posted by Dysk at 10:49 PM on July 14 [12 favorites]

Thanks for this post, chariot pulled by cassowaries! I'm glad to see (mostly) positive responses.

As for the "unwritten rules" thing, I note that this concern is never raised on behalf of the new users who may actually prefer this language and may be more put off by careless use of the alternative. If I were joining MeFi all over again, I would rather be part of a site that stops and thinks about its language use rather than one that's constantly wringing hands over not putting off newbies by being.. kind? Thoughtful? Compassionate?
posted by fight or flight at 7:04 AM on July 15 [18 favorites]

For what it's worth, I'm one of the people who used the phrase in a previous askme. In the thread that followed, someone pointed out that it was problematic, and I've removed it from my language use since then. That seems like the system working as intended, to me. I guess if the argument is "people shouldn't ever have to read that language," I understand the concern. I'm a bit embarrassed by my ignorance and would probably delete the post in question if I could, but it's also deep in askme history and hopefully something people are unlikely to come upon by accident.
posted by Alterscape at 9:18 AM on July 15 [7 favorites]

(Disclaimer: my dad was handicapped)

My thinking every time I see "wheelchair bound" is "are they tied down/handcuffed/nailed down in there? Can you still get them out of the chair to go to the bathroom? In that case, no, they aren't "bound."

{Possibly I take this a bit literally.)
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:19 AM on July 15 [2 favorites]

Before reading this thread, it wouldn't have occurred to me that "wheelchair-bound" was loaded with negative connotations, so as others have noted, thanks for posting! Happy to adjust.

While I don't want to speak for saeculorum, I took them to mean that given that this isn't common knowledge per se, it wouldn't seem to warrant an automatic deletion for posts/comments that include this phrasing - but in-thread corrections or the offer of a friendly edit by a mod certainly seems a great solution.
posted by coffeecat at 11:11 AM on July 15 [5 favorites]

One of the things I have come to appreciate most about MetaFilter over my 15+ years here is how these sorts of MetaTalk discussions consistently give me a multi-year headstart on purging slurs and other problematic language from my vocabulary long before it would be a problem anywhere else in my life.

I'm not going to list specific examples for obvious reasons, but there's been at least a couple dozen incidents when a MetaTalk thread convinced me to stop using a particular term that at the time was still a part of mainstream speech, and then several years later the rest of the world suddenly caught up in an explosion of corporate trainings, style guide revisions, public scandals, advocacy/education campaigns, etc.

Makes me feel like some sort of hipster every time it happens. "Oh, I already started saying X instead of Y years ago before it was cool."

A very sincere thank you to everyone who participates in these discussions. Y'all have preemptively saved me from making an ass of myself in hundreds, maybe even thousands, of interactions.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:30 PM on July 15 [28 favorites]

"In the thread that followed, someone pointed out that it was problematic, and I've removed it from my language use since then. That seems like the system working as intended, to me."
"I'm a bit embarrassed by my ignorance"

Ah but "the system working as intended" still resulted in you writing something that offended someone and that you're now embarrassed about, whereas these MetaTalk discussions that shape moderation guidelines prevent thousands of future incidents of offense and embarrassment from even happening.

Learning from your mistakes is good but learning how to avoid mistakes before you make them is even better.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:03 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

I had a wheelchair-using friend in college who would tell people “I’m not wheelchair-bound unless my girlfriend ties me there.” That image got me to switch over to “wheelchair user” in everyday conversation real quickly.
posted by ActionPopulated at 3:05 PM on July 15 [5 favorites]

Aye, I don’t think you meant it this way but since we’re here in this very particular thread I just wanna say that picturing disabled people having sex is great and people should do it. (I am 90% certain that you aren’t saying that it grossed you out that your disabled friend was having sex, so please don’t take it as a personal call out or something!) please and thank you to everyone for not using disabled people’s sexuality as a bad thing.
posted by Bottlecap at 6:07 PM on July 15 [4 favorites]

Makes me feel like some sort of hipster every time it happens. "Oh, I already started saying X instead of Y years ago before it was cool."

brb, grabbing "politeness hipster" for my new sockpuppet
posted by eirias at 6:18 PM on July 15 [5 favorites]

Did not mean that the thought of my friend having sex grossed me out! What her comment did was immediately transform the phrase “wheelchair bound” into something sexual in my mind. In that context it would be wildly inappropriate to use as an everyday descriptor for someone you know nothing about, so it was easy to make the mental leap from there to “and it’s inappropriate because of ableism also.”
posted by ActionPopulated at 6:20 PM on July 15 [5 favorites]

Uh, yeah, my brain goes to the same dirty location on that topic ;)
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:41 PM on July 15

This is not exactly a cutting-edge request. It's one I agree with, but the usage has been "uses a wheelchair" for decades at this point. From the NYT in 1988, for example:
To the Editor:

In your July 19 article on the MacArthur Foundation fellowship awards for 1988, the inaccurate and out-of-date term ''confined to a wheelchair,'' no longer in use because it is offensive, was used in reference to the author Andre Dubus. The Associated Press style book suggests that ''uses a wheelchair'' or ''wheelchair user'' is more appropriate.

None of us are tied in. Mr. Dubus, as well as others of us who use wheelchairs for mobility, actually sleep in beds, so we are not ''confined to wheelchairs.'' SANDA ARONSON New York, July 24, 1988
posted by lapis at 10:25 PM on July 15 [13 favorites]

The Conscious Style Guide is a nice clearinghouse-style resource for language use.

Their Disability & Ability page

The National Center on Disability and Journalism's Disability Language Style Guide
posted by lapis at 8:21 AM on July 16 [8 favorites]

I prefer wheelchair user to person who uses a wheelchair because it's more to type with my poor eyesight. I am a happy free-wheeling wheelchair user.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 5:56 PM on July 16 [8 favorites]

Perhaps this is off-topic, but as let's not forget there are a multitude of possibly offensive or outmoded terms for a multitude of disabilities. And just as this thread demonstrates (with varying preferences for "wheelchair user" and "person who uses a wheelchair"), the preferred terminology is not settled. As noted by Lapis, there are quite a few guidance documents out there with do's and don'ts, including for example this one from Stanford (which says either "user" or "person who uses" are OK relative to wheelchairs). Rather than creating a wheelchair rule, written or unwritten, perhaps MetaFilter could adopt or adapt one of the guidance sheets already out there.
posted by beagle at 7:23 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]

As a casual user who infrequently visits Talk, I’d appreciate a community style guide to be compiled and occasionally posted in the top bar. It could loop in/update members who are unaware of unwelcome language lurking in our vocabularies.
posted by itesser at 12:48 PM on July 18 [5 favorites]

, it may help to try to mentally reclassify wheelchairs into a group of assistive devices alongside mobility aids and prosthetics

I find it helpful to classify my wheelchair and mobility scooter among the category "transportation options" or maybe "vehicles." Like, before I used a wheelchair, I decided whether to walk somewhere, ride my bike, take a bus, or drive, based on time, weather, my energy level, etc. What I do now is a continuum with those decisions.
posted by Well I never at 1:21 PM on July 19 [6 favorites]

I am more than happy to comply but, truth be told, I never read the bound in wheelchair bound as anything but enroute as in the person in question was going somewhere in a wheelchair.
posted by y2karl at 2:10 PM on July 28

But "homeward bound" doesn't mean "tootling around in my RV;" it means "going home."
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:13 PM on July 28

New speedrun to peak Metatalk: 3 comments.
posted by tigrrrlily at 5:49 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]

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