Words That Hurt: “You’re so pretty for being in a wheelchair”

photo of Alex Stoffel smiling
Alex Stoffel

A phrase that I have heard time and time again is, “You’re so pretty for being in a wheelchair.”  This is said in different forms and sentences but the surprised tone is always the same, as if a person with a disability should not be attractive. I’ve had friends in wheelchairs get the same “compliments.” And, true, the speakers all intend for their comment to be a compliment. However, it sends a different signal. It signals something beyond the individual and suggests a larger problem: People in wheelchairs, or with disabilities, should not be good looking. It is a phenomenon worth noting if ever an attractive person with a disability is encountered.  

Growing up in my chair, I never felt pretty. How could I when the first thing people noticed about me was the huge metal thing I was maneuvering in? Impossible. I looked at magazines and saw “flawless” girls, ones without a single visible disability. The only time I noticed people with visible disabilities on flyers was in the doctor’s office or college websites trying to promote the diversity of their student body. This is the world people with disabilities live in. There are no “pretty” or attractive people with visible disabilities on covers of magazines, or on TV, which explains why people are shocked to find we exist.  

Saying the phrase “you’re so pretty for being in a wheelchair” means that people with disabilities are not viewed as attractive because they haven’t been shown that way yet. This results in further exclusion of people with disabilities, and for myself, more shame about having a disability. Sometimes I wish the sentence would stop at “You’re so pretty.” Everything after that reminds me that society doesn’t consider that part of me beautiful.