As wheelchairs become more available and more affordable, more and more people who have trouble walking or standing are opting to use a manual or a power wheelchair as their primary mobility aid. The following are some important tips to keep in mind when interacting with a wheelchair user, whether it is a stranger or a friend.
- Don’t assume.
Don’t make assumptions about why a person is using a wheelchair. Many, if not most, wheelchair users are not paralyzed and can get up if they need to. Wheelchairs may be used to avoid overexertion, to relieve back pain or by individuals who cannot walk for extended periods of time – that doesn’t make them totally disabled.
In addition, don’t assume the person can’t understand you, can’t hear you or needs your help… in other words, DON’T ASSUME. Try instead to view wheelchair users as what they are – regular people who happen to be using a different tool to get around.
- Speak directly to the wheelchair user.
Don’t disrespect a wheelchair user by speaking to the caregiver instead of them – especially not about them. Just because their legs or back doesn’t function as well as yours, doesn’t mean their brain is any less capable then yours.
- Don’t comment on the wheelchair.
There’s no need to discuss, question or even compliment the wheelchair. Talk to the person about yourself, themselves, or anything else – but not about their wheelchair (unless you’re looking into buying one yourself). It’s inappropriate and often uncomfortable to highlight their use of a wheelchair or make it the focus of your discussion.
- Don’t touch.
Never touch a wheelchair or wheelchair user without a direct invitation to do so. It is both demeaning and rude. Most wheelchair users consider their wheelchair an extension of their own body, so avoid leaning on, pushing or otherwise handling their chair without their explicit permission.
- Don’t use their parking spots or restroom stalls.
Even if it’s just for five minutes. Even if there are no wheelchair users around. You don’t know when one will show up – and desperately need the convenience you are needlessly robbing them of.
- Sit down for long conversations.
Don’t make the wheelchair user crane their neck for long periods of time so they can speak to you – take a seat and let the conversation flow more naturally.
- Let them help you.
If a wheelchair user offers assistance with bags, etc., take their help – don’t assume they don’t have the ability and let them judge that for themselves. Overall, never “mother” a wheelchair user – they are often very independent and don’t need or want you to fuss over them.
- Don’t ask questions.
Unless you know the person well or have an ongoing relationship with them, avoid asking intrusive or personal questions, even if you’re curious.
If you do know the wheelchair user and want to ask them a question, be careful: many questions are rude and inappropriate, and even those that aren’t should be prefaced with a qualifier such as, “do you mind if I ask…” to give the wheelchair user the opportunity to politely decline answering the question.
- Don’t bend down to speak to them.
Bending down to speak to a wheelchair user is patronizing and should be avoided at all costs. If you find it difficult to maintain eye contact while standing, pull up a seat.
- Don’t ask for a go in their chair.
You’d think this doesn’t have to be said, but unfortunately, there are actually adults out there who ask this. Where would the wheelchair user go while you tried it? Besides, they don’t see a wheelchair as a joy ride – don’t undermine their pain and discomfort by implying that it is.