“Woah, A Wheel:” A Sociological Study

Zach Gzehoviak

An estimated 1.6 million people in the United States use wheelchairs.  This is quite a large number.  One might suggest that it is very common for an American to see a wheelchair user everyday.  Many might believe that people in wheelchairs are treated the same as those not in wheelchairs.  In fact, many Americans might look at a wheelchair user and only think about the user’s paralysis or injury.

For a final Sociology 113 assignment, I was asked to find out for myself exactly how one in a wheelchair might be treated by society.  I borrowed a wheelchair and immediately enveloped myself in the character of a disabled person.  I found many unexpected results during this so-called “participant observation.”  Whether I was ordering a medium latte from Starbucks or looking at sweaters in J. Crew, things were different.  I experienced many unusual reactions to my appearance from children, teenagers, business employees, and even my family.  In reality, the average wheelchair user is certainly not treated the same as those who walk.

After borrowing a wheelchair from my local church, I began my experiment by brainstorming several places in which I could observe others’ reactions to the wheelchair.  Greenwich Avenue, a main street in Greenwich, Conn., seemed ideal because of its several crowded stores and eating establishments.  The coffee shop by my house was an option due to its heavy flow of customers and great food.  Let’s not forget, I was hungry.  However, after an hour of heavy thought, the Stamford Mall in Stamford, Conn. seemed to be the best option.  The Stamford Mall’s high concentration of people, many coffee shops, and several restaurants made the place very appealing.  Not to mention, the mall is a great place for the inexperienced wheelchair user to roll around in.  I knew I had to keep my legs still and look as if I were a veteran at the device. 

On a Sunday at 2:30 p.m., my mother, my brother, and my girlfriend all joined me upon an arrival at the Stamford Mall.  My brother lifted the wheelchair out of the trunk, unfolded it, and lifted me from the car to sit.  I am most certain that my brother did not feel like catering to his little bro’s “fake” disabilities.  As I approached the entrance door, one little girl saw me coming, changed direction, and used another door.  One little boy stared at me as if he were finally seeing Santa Claus.  I immediately felt the spotlight shine upon my face.  As I waited for the elevator, another little girl screamed with excitement. “Whoa, A Wheel!!!”

Soon enough, I was rolling through the mall past many vendors and stores.  My family and I split up, which left my girlfriend in charge of steering my chair.  The vendors were particularly interesting during the study.  It has always been difficult for me to fight off the vendor employees with a quick pace or a “no thanks.”  Most of the employees try very hard to sell the silly products.  However, not one vendor approached me to buy a product.  In fact, most of the employees avoided eye contact. 

Society: the basics by John J. Macionis claims that “eye contact encourages interaction.”  If the vendor employee avoided eye contact, she most likely did not want any sort of interaction.  An interaction might have caused her to feel sad.  Most people do not like to see a young guy in a wheel chair.  It is possible she had been taught to keep emotions away from the workplace by her company.  Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist, explains, “the typical company does indeed try to control not only the behavior but also the emotions of its employees.”  I also saw signs of this “ideal bureaucracy” in other establishments.  
Next, I ventured into Starbucks to buy a latte.  It was very hard to get around the place because it was so crowded.  Most people moved out of the way so that I could order.  However, no one said much of anything.  A silent vibe in the coffee shop suggested that many of the people did not want to be burdened with my problem.  I elongated my spine in order to see the selection of pastries.  Unfortunately, that technique did not work well so I gave up on the top row of pastries.  Even the counter was somewhat difficult to see over.  The cashier looked around as I waited for her to take my order.  I felt as if she was looking for someone besides me to ring up.  The two-minute struggle to grab the wallet from my pants pocket while sitting down created a blockade in the schedule of customers. 

The latte was pretty good.  My only complaint was that the wheelchair did not have a cup holder.  Thus, my girlfriend had to push me into J. Crew, a men’s clothing store.  The spaces between the racks of clothing were very compact.  It became a task to find a way out of the store.  Not one employee or customer offered to help out or make space.  I also believe my girlfriend was steering impaired at the time due to several “cute dresses and sweaters.”

Next, my girlfriend and I ventured to Barnes and Noble bookstore.  On the way in, my girlfriend expressed her feelings.   “Baby I don’t like this. The chair is making me feel bad for you.”  I rolled through the many isles in the music section with intent to find a cool CD.  It was somewhat difficult from my position to see every title.  The CD listening devices in each isle were way out of reach.  I mention this because I am six foot two inches and I still could not reach.   

All a sudden, something caught my eye inside the bookstore.  Oh no, I thought.  I saw a real disabled person in a wheelchair. I felt horrible. For the first time, I had a sense of what this boy endured every day. I knew I was lucky to be walking. My girlfriend and I left the bookstore in order to avoid guilt during the study. I guess I had something in common with the people I had just studied.

Finally, the whole family re-grouped. We all decided to go shopping in Macy’s. This time, my brother offered to push me around while my mom and girlfriend browsed the large selection of shoes.  My brother’s reaction to the wheelchair was very intriguing. His personality changed and he had become more sympathetic. It was as if he forgot that I wasn’t really disabled. He helped me look for the elevator. We looked at the furniture together. He joked around and held my latte if I wanted to push myself in the chair. Then, I thought about my mom’s reaction to the chair when we first entered the mall. “Zach, this makes me sad.  It’s tough to see you like this,” my mom expressed. 

Something was interesting about my family and girlfriend’s reactions. Although the three people knew I was not disabled, they still seemed sad and sympathetic. The many people inside the mall also exhibited strange reactions towards the chair. Because the people did not know me personally, it was easier for them to avoid eye contact. I have concluded that there is a correlation between the sight of one in a wheelchair and a sad reaction.

Max Weber’s symbolic-interaction approach supports this idea. Society: the basics by John J. Macionis, explains that Weber, a German sociologist, “emphasized understanding a particular setting from the point of view of the people in it.” The approach explains that human beings live in a world full of symbols. Humans make meaning with the symbols they see. Therefore, the wheelchair represented a symbol to those who I interacted with. The symbol brought about sad and mixed emotions.  Even a handicapped bathroom uses the symbol for its door. The little girl who screamed, “Whoa, a Wheel!!!” was most likely too young and unaware of the wheelchair’s connotation. She was much more excited over the big wheels. The wheelchair is a symbol, which represents the in
ability to perform normal human tasks. Thus, people who can perform normal tasks, feel sympathy toward a wheelchair user.

All in all, the wheelchair immediately put me in the spotlight. Children were generally surprised or even stared out of confusion. Older people wanted to avoid the wheelchair’s connotation. Vendor employees did not seem at all interested in selling me something.

It is very possible that society views wheelchair users as people incapable of many things. Maybe the vendor employees did not try to sell me anything because I look unable to pay or respond like the average human being. Many Americans take their legs for granted every day. It would be difficult to be constantly surrounded by sympathy. It is important for society to accommodate to these average human beings.