[Image shows three spoons on a laptop keyboard. Overlaid is torn white notebook paper with a red paper clip. On the paper in black text reads “How to Interact with a Wheelchair User” with a black wheelchair stick man symbol and below that in dark small red text “Thee Crohnie Grace”. In the lower left hand corner includes “Thee Crohnie Grace” blog banner.]
It can be both awkward for the person in the wheelchair and the abled bodied person the first time around. A lot of people don’t know how to act, what to say, what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. The purpose of today’s blog post is to go over basic etiquette on how to interact with someone who is using a wheelchair.
[Image shows me in a burgundy sweatshirt and black shorts sitting in my wheelchair looking up at an angle, behind me is the living room fireplace and various pictures.]
First and foremost, not everyone who uses a wheelchair is paralyzed. There are many reasons for using a wheelchair: mobility disorders (EDS, Cerebral Palsy, Friedreich Ataxia), fatigue, chronic pain, difficulty standing for long periods of time due to things like Dysautonomia. So never assume that a person is faking or that they do not need their wheelchair simply because you have seen them stand or walk for short distances.
When you meet a person in a wheelchair, just say hi. Don’t insist on knowing why they are in a wheelchair. They do not owe you their entire life’s story. Focus on the person, not on the disability. People who use wheelchairs are people first. Shake their hand if you want.
If the person in the wheelchair is being accompanied by a caretaker, make sure you talk to the person, not their caretaker. Keep in mind that they are present, don’t infantilize them by leaving them out of the conversation or going over them and asking questions they could answer to their caretaker.
Consider accessibility when going places. If you are going out to a restaurant or to a movie, consider where it will be easiest for them to manage to access ramps. If it looks like they might be struggling to get up a ramp (since many ramps are still inaccessible) ask them if they would like help. Never assume they need help, and never try to help without asking. If they don’t accept your help, don’t stress over it, just move on.
On the topic of not trying to help without asking, do NOT touch their wheelchair, lean on their wheelchair, move their wheelchair. Their wheelchair is an extension of their body and is due the same personal space you would give any other person. You would not touch a stranger without permission, so do not touch their wheelchair.
[The image to the left is a selfie shot of over my shoulder, a complete stranger who I do not know their name or who they were is holding onto the hand of my wheelchair.]
The other day I had an instance of a complete stranger holding on to my wheelchair. This is not appropriate. Do not touch people’s wheelchair. That would be the equivalent of a complete stranger coming up and just holding someone’s arm. It’s extremely uncomfortable and just rude.
Another important thing to remember is if a person in a wheelchair has a service dog, do not touch their dog, they are working. This goes for all service animals, do not pet them or distract them from doing their job.
Don’t shy around phrases like “run along” or “going on a walk”. Most of the time we use those same phrases too. Don’t try to be funny and make jokes about using a wheelchair, unless you are a close friend and have been given the okay to joke around. I know many of my friends and I make jokes from time to time in regards to it.
Be respectful at all times, just treat people the way you want to be treated, don’t use a wheelchair accessible bathroom stall if you don’t need it, don’t park in disabled parking without a pass, etc.
Now for some quotes from other wheelchair users:
“Do not touch and/or mess with my chair without asking. Don’t assume I can’t do things just cause I’m using a wheelchair.” -Nina Marie
“Don’t be afraid to get to my level in anyway. It [makes it] easier by not hurting my next and hugs are way better too.” –Breezy Nichols
“Don’t assume I need your help, with anything. I will ask if I do.” –Angel Marie Wilson
“Don’t touch/interfere/block/joke about it. Realize that it’s a tool and not who I am. Don’t pity me or tell me you’re sorry for me. I’m not. Offer help, and if it’s politely refused, don’t apologize and just let it go. It’s not about you.” –Chris Shrewsbury
“Don’t talk to me like I can’t understand you because I’m in the chair.” –Mila Shelly
Being in a wheelchair is not a death sentence. It can give people so much freedom and make life much easier. It is an aid. With my wheelchair I’m able to go to conventions, take photography, go to events and not hurt myself to have a good time. The only thing hard about being a wheelchair user is the way people act and perceive me for using a wheelchair, but by abiding by these simple rules and thinking before you act it can make everyday easier for both parties involved.