Wheelchair Guys Are All Alike
By BEN MATTLIN
Published: March 10, 2012
ACCORDING to recent media reports, the esteemed British physicist and author Stephen Hawking has been frequenting a Southern California sex club.
My reaction to that news: Are you sure it was him?
Not that Professor Hawking couldn’t or shouldn’t go to what one paper called a “jiggle joint.” Rather, my skepticism stems from the fact that I’m often mistaken for Stephen Hawking.
But it wasn’t me. Honest. Strangers frequently mistake one wheelchair user for another, and I’m often mistaken for him. We both use sophisticated, customized wheelchairs, because of different but similar disabilities. And we both wear glasses. But there the resemblance ends.
Even before Stephen Hawking was world famous, it wasn’t uncommon for me to hear something like, “Didn’t I see you on TV the other day?” Or “Aren’t you that guy from the church outing last year?” Sorry. Must have been some other guy on wheels.
What’s really funny is when people don’t take no for an answer. “Oh, come on. You are that guy! Or at least you know him, right?”
I don’t take this kind of stuff too personally. (A) I’m used to it. And (B) I’m certain other folks in wheelchairs experience it, too. In fact, remarks like these are so common that a friend recently suggested we start a Twitter feed about it. Like “Bleep my dad says,” only it would be stuff the able-bodied say to people with disabilities. It’d be a gold mine.
Why do people do this? Do we really all look alike?
What hurts the most is when the mistaken identity becomes a judgment, a remark about how people perceive me. How am I supposed to feel when a stranger says, “It’s so beautiful to see you outside today,” which I recently heard at a busy street corner and puzzled over. All I can think to say in response is, “You, too!”
To be sure, there are plenty of neutral and even backhandedly flattering examples. Jokes about my equipment are especially frequent, as in, “You got a license to drive that chair, buddy?” And I’ve been called heroic and inspirational more times than Moses, Jesus and Muhammad combined.
More irksome are the random, uninvited prescriptions. Being told how to drive my chair, for instance — “turn around and back into the elevator,” say — by someone who’s never used a wheelchair. Or if I only tried vitamin E or accepted Jesus Christ, I’d rise up and dance!
Worse still are the remarks directed at whoever is with me that demean us both. The people who ask my African-American friends if they’re my nurse. Or ask my wife if I’m her brother — or even, once, her son! — based on an assumption that someone like me wouldn’t have friends or a spouse.
Once, several years ago, I was riding in the park with my wife on my lap when a guy on a bench shouted, “Who says you ain’t gonna get lucky tonight!” Only not in those exact words.
People shouldn’t comment about strangers, especially if the comments are unkind. The worst of them reveal that, in these strangers’ eyes, I’m not a person but an object. An oddity, a noble sufferer or a needy specimen who’s burdening others. At best, I’m mistaken for someone familiar — a celebrity, like Stephen Hawking.
Perhaps I should take advantage of this by doing something naughty. I’d get away with it because no one would believe it was me.
Ben Mattlin is a freelance journalist and the author of “Miracle Boy Grows Up: How the Disability Rights Revolution Saved My Sanity.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on March 11, 2012, on page SR3 of the New York edition with the headline: Wheelchair Guys Are All Alike.