Wheelchairs Unbound: The Paralympics and the Language of Limitation

English artist Sue Austin's underwater wheelchair performance pushes us to resist assumptions about disability.


As you take in the Paralympics this weekend, you may want to pay special attention to language use. You'll likely hear (or read) someone using the phrase "wheelchair-bound" quite a bit. Reuters, in its coverage of opening ceremonies this week, used it right up top in its lead:

Wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking challenged athletes to "look to the stars" on Wednesday as he helped open a record-setting Paralympics Games that will run for 11 days in near sold-out venues.


Certainly Hawking is not "bound" by his wheelchair—he's even floated in zero gravity atmosphere aboard the Vomit Comet.

It's a sloppy and offensive way to describe someone who uses a wheelchair. The wheelchair is a tool—it's certainly not a person's defining characteristic—and the Paralympics may be one of the best reminders of that.

English artist Sue Austin seems to be interrogating our assumptions around disability and limitation with her work Freewheeling where she beautifully navigates the oceanic depths from the seat of her wheelchair. Austin presents her piece in the UK this week as part of the Cultural Olympiad.