by: Nerissa Cannon
One of the original Freedom Chair Trailblazers, Nerissa, now works full time with GRIT! Her own journey with chronic illness has made her very passionate about helping other people get the most out of life in spite of a disabling condition.
As an individual with a chronic, degenerative illness I’ve gone through a wide array of mobility equipment over the past few years. As my condition progressed, and I started using a wheelchair, I noticed a significant change in how my abilities were perceived. The reality is, I became MUCH more mobile and independent with my wheelchair than I was with any sort of walking aid. That’s not how most people saw it, though.
For several months, I walked dogs professionally. My most regular client, a German Shepherd named Trae, got along beautifully with my Service Dog, Cash, so I made sure they walked together as often as possible. Walking 2 large dogs from my standard ultralight wheelchair elicited a variety of reactions from the public. The most common of these reactions tended to be fear! I was never quite certain if they were afraid for MY safety or for THEIR safety if the dogs chose to mutiny against my leadership. The few individuals who didn’t look afraid would look at me with intense pity while walking past me as I worked up a good hill.
It does become a little irritating to be judged about my abilities just because of how I get around, but you learn to just kind of let it roll off since it happens so often. However, when I got my GRIT Freedom Chair I noticed a DRASTIC change in the reactions of the public to me and my equipment. Faces changed from condescending pity to INTRIGUE and AWE! Comments changed from the patronizing (“Oh you’re doing SOOOOO good!”) to the genuinely excited (“Wow! That’s a cool chair!”).
Cyclists would recognize the bicycle features and stop their rides to ask me about it and say hi to the dogs. Individuals taking breaks on benches would ask if it could help them get moving more, too. These were people who previously rejected the idea of a wheelchair to manage their illness, but the GRIT Freedom Chair didn’t look like the wheelchair they feared ending up in.
I’m not the only Freedom Chair rider that’s discovered this change in perception. I had the chance to speak with another user, Crys Davis, who remarked the same surprising discovery:
“The thing that surprised me the most is that when I go into an establishment like the grocery store or the bike shop or anything suddenly people aren’t seeing me; they’re seeing my chair. Which sounds completely goofy, but they’re looking at me and they’re not seeing, ‘Oh the poor disabled woman.’ They’re seeing a really interesting and intriguing piece of equipment . . .
“It was something that I think for me it sticks out the most because it’s a thing I didn’t expect. Yes, I expected to cover more terrain; and it has surpassed all of my hopes and expectations in terms of getting around on rougher terrain and being able to hike again . . . But I expected all that. So even though it exceeded all those expectations which don’t get me wrong is very cool, it’s not the thing that stands out the most.”
Mary Jane Fietze had the opportunity to rent a GRIT Freedom Chair from the Boston office for several days. She also had a positive experience “riding [it] and meeting strangers who expressed their respect. One person said ‘I wouldn’t want to arm wrestle you!’”
In the GRIT Freedom Chair, as opposed to my standard daily chair, I am not viewed as an individual struggling to get by. I am viewed as someone driven, able, and powerful. This change in perception will not only influence positive self-image, it can promote social change as well. If an individual with a disability can be seen as strong instead of weak, that opens up opportunities for them. Instead of people assuming what they CAN’T do, they start to think about what they CAN do. Ability versus disability.