I’ve spent most of my life in a wheelchair. Using a wheelchair comes with plenty of perks: I could give myself approximately seven minutes to get from my former dorm in Bloomberg to my favorite journalism class in Joseph Henry House, and I never have to worry about the weight of my bags after a shopping spree (my handlebars are very helpful).
That being said, I can’t pretend that it’s always easy to be a wheelchair user. It makes me stick out and sometimes results in unpleasant interactions with people who do not understand what it is like to have a disability.
A few weeks ago, I visited Princeton for my first Alumni Day since graduating last May. It was supposed to be an opportunity to revisit campus and reunite with cherished friends, but I could not have anticipated what would happen during the trip. My visit started off wonderfully. I ended my first night on campus by talking to my friends for hours in their Scully dorm room, eventually forcing myself to leave around 12:45 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25 so I could attempt to be well-rested for alumni festivities. As I rolled along a familiar route down Goheen Walk in my wheelchair, the night became anything but typical.
I passed by a group of college-aged men on the sidewalk, and at first, I gave them no mind. But in the midst of their conversation, I heard the word “walking” and some laughter. I began paying attention. Then, one of them addressed me directly to say, “Why don’t you try walking?”
One of the other guys in the group reprimand my harasser, saying, “That’s so f*cked up.” I’m glad at least one of them acknowledged the inappropriateness of what occurred, even if this was not sufficient enough to take away from the discomfort I felt.
I was shocked at this rampant display of ableism. In four years of being at Princeton, this was the rudest comment I ever received about my disability. My wheelchair was weaponized against me as the punchline of an inappropriate joke. The men I encountered tried to make me feel inferior, but they did not succeed. Instead, I just felt angry about the lack of understanding they displayed toward disability.
I knew better than to say anything to the students at the time; I’m not typically confrontational, let alone at night when clearly outnumbered. After I heard these comments, I rolled along at my top speed of six mph, doing everything I could to get away from this group before they could say anything else. They might not even remember this interaction, but I certainly will. But this is what I would tell that group if I could speak to them now:
First of all, I have tried walking, thank you very much. I can walk, but only for short distances. Most of the time, my wheelchair is my primary mode of transportation. So many people unfairly think of a wheelchair as limiting. The popularity of the phrases “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair” in the media exemplifies this inaccurate misconception. My wheelchair does not impair me; it gives me my freedom and independence.
Second, I’d tell those students harassing me out loud to keep their thoughts to themselves. Unfortunately, outside of Princeton, it’s pretty common for me to have unwanted interactions with strangers who feel entitled to comment on my wheelchair and disability.
Countless strangers have approached me just to ask, “What happened to you?” even though I don’t owe anyone an explanation for my disability. In December, I passed a group of guys on the sidewalk during the daytime near my home in Washington, D.C., and among other “jokes,” they jeered, “She thinks she’s going 1000 mph.” If I had a dollar for every time someone has said I need a speeding ticket, I’d be rich.
I am fully independent as I traverse Washington, D.C., but that didn’t stop someone from asking where my caregiver was as I waited on the Metro platform. Strangers will often come up to me and pray for my miraculous healing, not taking into account my own religious beliefs or the idea that maybe I don’t even want to be healed.
One time, while I was taking a short break on the sidewalk outside a Congressional office, a woman approached me and said, “Thank you for setting an example for people with challenges.” I would understand her comment if I were a member of Congress, but how am I setting an example by just existing in public? As a disabled person, I’m not an inspiration for simply living.
I’m not describing these comments as a way to elicit pity or make myself look like a victim. In fact, I’m far from it. All these misguided ideas about disability that I’ve encountered throughout my life have motivated me to work with other disabled students to advocate for a more accessible and inclusive campus environment. There are many other disabled students who have similar encounters with ableism, on and off campus.
Being a disabled student at Princeton isn’t always easy. That being said, I found that most students, faculty, and staff are already incredibly welcoming and accommodating. When I think about my experience as a disabled student at Princeton, I think about how my friends would come to my room for game nights and parties even if they would typically have hosted in their own inaccessible dorm rooms, or how they would automatically call restaurants on Nassau Street to check for accessibility as they were planning off-campus meals with me.
I think about the time when a friend ran back from the Street in the cold to keep me company in my room when I told her none of the bouncers of the eating clubs open that night knew how I could enter in my wheelchair, just so she could make sure I wasn't alone. I think about how my friend and former ‘Prince’ editor-in-chief took it upon himself to successfully fight for the installation of an automatic door opener at 48 University Place so I could have full and unimpeded access to the newsroom that became my second home on campus.
I think about the awe I felt as I gazed around the beautiful interior of Nassau Hall as I became the first wheelchair user to enter the building when an elevator finally got installed after 265 years. I think about the many students who successfully advocated to use ASL to fulfill their language requirement, the overwhelming demand for the subsequent expansion of ASL course options, and the addition of related classes like Deaf Culture.
I think about how many students now come to events focused on disability, like AccessAbility Center programming and Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month Shabbat. I think about how the Disability Collective student group has been and continues to be a source of community, solidarity, and advice for me and so many others. There’s still progress left to be made in the movement toward full accessibility, but I’m proud to have witnessed all of these important improvements throughout the past four years.
This is why although what those students said to me about my wheelchair during Alumni Day was deeply hurtful, I know they are not representative of the Princeton community. This wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced ableist comments, and it won’t be the last, but I am hopeful that it’ll be the last time at Princeton.
I wish more people outside of Princeton know what my friends and peers already know: disability is not a bad word. “Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives — job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example,” recently departed legendary disability rights activist Judy Heumann once said. “It is not a tragedy to me that I'm living in a wheelchair,” she continued. I couldn’t agree more.
Almost everyone experiences disability in some capacity, through temporary disabilities and injuries or because of aging. In fact, people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority group. As hard as it is to be disabled in a society not built to accommodate differences, it’s even more difficult for people of marginalized races, ethnicities, sexualities, and gender identities. That is why it is essential to embed the tenets of disability justice into everything we do.
One day I hope to live in a world that truly understands the challenges of being disabled, while also understanding how to support and empower disabled people to be our best selves without pitying and further marginalizing us. Princeton students can help make that world a reality. I hope that my next visit to campus is full of all the compassion and inclusion I became accustomed to in the best damn place of all.
Naomi Hess ’22 graduated from the SPIA department and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She serves as a Young Alumni Trustee; this self essay reflects her views alone and not the view of the Board of Trustees. She was an Associate News Editor in the 144th and 145th Managing Boards of the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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