Confined or Not? Reflections on Disability, Language, and Microaggression


I first met Milton when I had my law office downtown about 20 years ago. He was selling flowers and dispensing good cheer to passersby on a street corner on my way to and from the courthouse. One day I treated myself to one of Milton’s lovely roses and we struck up a friendship of sorts. I no longer have a downtown office or a law practice, but Milton is still there. According to a recent news story, he still sells flowers and shares happiness with others—and it seems some of them are repaying him for what he has given them over the years.

Milton has cerebral palsy. His speech is difficult to understand, his limb movements seem labored and jerky, and he appears frail, but he makes it to the downtown area just about every weekday in the customized wheelchair that has allowed him the freedom to get up every morning and ride the bus there from his neighborhood on the west side for the past several years. It’s breaking down, though, and apparently whatever insurance coverage Milton has, if any, will not be sufficient to pay the cost of replacing the worn-out chair—so the downtown businesspeople have started collecting money to help him out.

What has motivated the generosity of these good folks? Do they just feel sorry for Milton and his circumstances? I don’t think so. You see, Milton is a good businessman: he gives value-added service. If you ask him, Milton will say that life is good, that it’s a great day, and you find yourself having to agree. That feeling of good cheer remains long after your flowers have withered and died. I think what is felt for Milton is respect and appreciation, not pity.

As I promised in the title, here’s the part about language. The news article about Milton says he thinks that the wheelchair frees him from the boundaries of his home and allows him to feel like a valued participant in the world around him. Not once in the article do I read that Milton is “confined” to his wheelchair or “wheelchair bound.” I think that’s significant. Here’s why.

Microaggression is an example of negative, disempowering communication. A microaggression occurs when a member of a traditionally privileged group (in this case, able-bodied persons) makes a statement toward or about someone from a traditionally marginalized group (here, people with disabilities) that has the effect of increasing the stature of the speaker but diminishing that of the recipient or subject. Although this issue has not been addressed, to my knowledge, in the literature on microaggression, I believe that traditionally marginalized group members can become microaggressors, too, as the result of internalizing disempowering messages received throughout life.

Microaggressions often are unintended and committed simply through blitheness. If challenged, a perpetrator will often protest, asserting that the offended party is being overly sensitive and that s/he “didn’t mean anything offensive!” Nonetheless, harm has been done, covertly or openly, through the perpetuation of a negative stereotype, leaving the recipient feeling “one down.”

More often, I suspect, microaggression reflects the privileged speaker/writer’s fear of powerlessness and inability to cope in a situation similar to that of the marginalized subject. In reality, though, with only a few exceptions, we aren’t very accurate at guessing how changed life circumstances would affect our level of happiness. There’s some significant research backing up this contention. Studies suggest that many of us, when life circumstances change for the worse, adjust our indicia of happiness accordingly. Small things we wouldn’t have expected begin to make us feel good.

I don’t know whether the writer of the news story on Milton is able-bodied or has a physical disability. Whatever the perspective, instead of committing the microaggression of portraying Milton as a pitiful victim of circumstance, the writer of this piece chose to give credence to Milton’s self-judgment and worldview. Unlike so many that I (and perhaps you, too) have read over the years, the piece is informative without becoming sensational or maudlin. I think, overall, that journalism is improving in that regard.

I believe Milton when he says that life is good. I would never try to convince him or portray it otherwise. As to whether, placed in his circumstances, I’d be able to say the same, I doubt it—but unless I actually become Milton I will never truly know, because I can’t help but view the mental picture of me living Milton’s life through the filter of my own experience and mindset. I must therefore refrain from expressing my assumptions about his life as certainties and from substituting my judgment about what his life is like for his.

Occasionally, I feel I must challenge those microaggressors who insist that they understand my “situation” (usually anything from merely difficult to really awful) because they know someone else who’s “wheelchair confined” or “wheelchair bound.” I wonder whether they believe me when I tell them that people who utilize wheelchairs are not all the same, that sometimes I have problems as everyone does, that I get over them, and that I enjoy my life. Thankfully, I’m choosing to waste less energy these days in attempts to educate them.

Kudos to Milton, to the business folk who are helping him out, and especially to the news writer, for allowing Milton to speak his truth. If you’d like to access the story, follow this link:

For more information on microaggression, go to the website or Facebook page of the same name.

To get a more authoritative perspective on how hard it is to know whether we’d be happy in drastically altered life circumstances, I recommend reading Stumbling on Happiness by Harvard psychologist and Professor Daniel Gilbert.

Related articles:
The Inner Voices of Prejudice and Discrimination

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Suellen Fagin-Allen, LMHC, Chronic Illness/Disability Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • susie

    March 15th, 2012 at 2:44 PM

    Glee is one of my very favorite shows and on there they use the term “handicapability”. That gets a like every time.

  • Gloria

    March 15th, 2012 at 5:02 PM

    Thank you so much for publishing this because it really opened my eyes about how I have thought about the handicapped community. You see, I have always thought of that wheelchair as confining and limiting, something that perhaps did not let someone live up to his or her potential. Why? Why was I not considering that like in Milton’s case, this was actually their chance to experience a little but of freedom that they have never had before? I feel ashamed but also liberated! Thank you for giving me that.

  • Cody. M

    March 15th, 2012 at 10:08 PM

    I’ve had thought someone with a disability was limited and unhappy but had an experience wherein one person actually showed me that he is much happier than I am and it’s no about how ‘able bodied’ you are but how you view and live your life.thats all that matters and should be the most important thing.

  • rod p

    March 16th, 2012 at 11:24 AM

    This was an inspiring story, but I think that for someone to truly change what he sees and how he feels they are going to have to experience something like this personally.

  • Mo

    March 17th, 2012 at 7:35 AM

    Easy to sit back and say all of these happy things when it is not you. . . but what if it was you? Would you feel as blessed as Milton? Would you be as happy with the little things in life? I know that I would personally have a hard time dealing with this, but this comes from a man who has had a lifetime of mobility and agility. What if I did not have that anymore? I think that would be a huge struggle for any of us to have that taken away from us.

  • Suellen Fagin-Allen

    March 17th, 2012 at 12:35 PM

    Thanks to all of you for your comments! Susie, I like “handicapability”, too, but I think it’s important to remember that such words must be personally embraced by those whom they are intended to describe in order for them to have validity. Gloria, please don’t feel ashamed – we don’t know what we don’t know. My aim is to increase understanding, not to condemn. Cody, Rod and Mo – each of you are correct and you each enforce the point I’m making in the article. Our perceptions are based on our own understanding of our own experiences and those of what others tell us about theirs. We can’t know exactly what is like to be another person, because we can only be ourselves. The best position to take on all this is to simply admit that we don’t know this, and we won’t know how it is to be different unless and until we become different. As a corollary, we need to accept what others say about their life circumstances as their truth.

  • Gloria

    March 18th, 2012 at 5:59 AM

    Thank you Suellen for reading all of our comments and responding. That means a lot coming from you., as this story was so very inspiring to me.


    March 19th, 2012 at 3:37 PM

    Being someone who is handicapped does not mean a death sentence like some people presume. It does not mean that you are unhappier than other people. It just means that you have to live your life a little bit differently than someone else. Why is that so hard for some people to grasp?

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