Culture

CBC's new series poses candid questions to wheelchair users — here's how they answered

'You Can't Ask That' sets the record straight on stereotypes

'You Can't Ask That' sets the record straight on stereotypes

Some things are better left unsaid. Even though they may be well-intentioned, certain curious questions and comments can do more harm than good. But a new CBC digital series aims to take some of those questions to the people who can set the record straight on certain stereotypes. You Can't Ask That, now streaming on CBC Gem, offers illuminating perspectives of Canadians living with different disabilities, posing them anonymous online questions and getting their raw, unscripted answers. The first episode, profiling wheelchair users, is an unfiltered discussion of the pros and cons of living dynamic and diverse lives — here's a taste of what it covers.

"Why are you in a wheelchair?"

The opening question instantly shows just how varied life in a wheelchair can be. Among the 8 subjects interviewed, the causes of their disability are drastically different. Paul Tshuma has a congenital condition,  Maayan Ziv was born with muscular dystrophy, Andrew Gurza has cerebral palsy and Woody Belfort has another form of cerebral palsy known as spastic displasia. Peter McGregor was in a multi-car collision as a child, Russell Winkelaar was struck by a drunk driver and Juliet Davies had a bicycle fall. Bean Gill was suddenly paralyzed due to a virus on vacation in Vegas. Each person has different-functioning wheelchairs, unique abilities using their wheelchairs and different relationships to them. Using a wheelchair from birth creates a vastly different experience than having to suddenly adjust to using one at the age of 8, 30 or 60. The episode also pairs some of the subjects together to share how limiting stereotypes can impact their vibrant lives.

"What are the perks of life in a wheelchair?"

Every situation comes with advantages and disadvantages and impatient line-waiters can't help but ask, "do you use your wheelchair to skip lines?" And here, the dichotomy is revealed as Ziv shared some mixed feelings about both wanting to be treated equally and also taking opportunities presented. Davies notes that even though she doesn't skip lines elsewhere, boarding an airplane first is great, while Belfort has a whole line-skipping strategy (of subtly nudging the person ahead of him causing a domino effect to the front), and Gill even admits it's nice to "get hot guys to carry you around when there's stairs." Winkelaar perhaps puts it most succinctly, "There are not a lot of perks (to wheelchair use), so I'll take the stupid little ones when I get them."

"Can you shower yourself?"

It's quite a common question, Ziv says, and she's befuddled by why people find it so fascinating, she certainly doesn't wonder the same about the people she meets. But there's a genuine curiosity, even between the subjects of the show. There are a variety of ways each showers — whether completely on their own, with the assistance of a shower chair, or requiring the help of an attendant. But the question itself speaks to a stigma, that such hygiene is somehow less important to wheelchair users, when the opposite is true. In actuality, because it requires more time, effort and planning, hygiene is perhaps even more of a priority since it's not something that could be done carelessly. "I'm jealous of everyone that takes a 5 minute shower in the morning,'' says Winelaar.

"Do you care if people use the disabled toilet?"

Similar to showering, wheelchair users have a variety of needs while going to the bathroom, all of which are completely ignored by anyone else who uses the disabled toilet without reason. The subjects are unanimous on how ignorant this is (not to mention annoying and frustrating), because they can't overstate the importance of being able to use it. If you think you're free to use the disabled toilet because no one else is around, Gill gives a stark reality check, explaining that her urge to use the bathroom can come suddenly, leaving her minimal time to get there, so it's of the essence that one is available. Juliet, an avid swimmer, shares her irritation when she sees people using the disabled stall to change their clothes, rather than using the changeroom. The extra space in the stall is a necessity for those who need it and, considering the limited number of public disabled toilets, keeping them open is more than just a courtesy.

"Does the wheelchair ruin romance?"

When curiosity wanders behind closed doors, a positive and productive mindset emerges. Gurza is an advocate for disability and sexuality and is quick to explain that wheelchairs don't ruin romance, but they do present different challenges. In the dating game, some may view the wheelchair as a barrier, being intimidated or even afraid of it, but Ziv says that's probably not the type of person you'd want to be romantic with in the first place. In that sense, the wheelchair can act as a filter, helping to weed out less open-minded partners. Nevertheless, this stigma can still run deep, even among users, as Gill admits one of her first thoughts when transitioning to wheelchair use was wondering who would date someone in her situation. But Gill's eventual revelation is this: not only for romance but on the whole — her wheelchair is not her, nor does it define her. Wheelchairs are simply an extension of who someone is, and there is a spirited, complex and full life behind each one.

You Can't Ask That also offers honest and inspiring profiles on Down syndrome, blind/visually impaired, short statured, facial differences, amputees, Tourette syndrome and autism spectrum disorder, all available now on CBC Gem.

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