When a Man Commented on My Wheelchair and I Wasn’t Offended

There are things to say and not to say to someone using a wheelchair. Unfortunately, in my experience, most people get it wrong. I can’t count the times I’ve been approached by a random stranger in public and told “you better slow down, this is a no speeding zone, hahaha” or “look out, woman driver.” It seems like when a wheelchair is present people become so uncomfortable that they lose all sense of ability to act rationally. People have said “you drive that thing really good.” Does that seem strange to anyone? Wouldn’t it seem strange if I came up to a random person and said, “You use your feet to walk really well!” I’ve actually responded to people with that line and they look at me confused and perplexed. They don’t know how to respond to that statement. Neither do I.

A wheelchair is merely a device used to assist people in mobility. It doesn’t change the person in any way. It isn’t something that needs to be constantly commented on. News flash, the person using the wheelchair already knows they are using it! In the very rare instance when I am seen in public without my wheelchair, I am never approached by random strangers. I am essentially invisible to others. I still have the same disability, but nobody seems to notice me. Why does the presence of a wheelchair automatically make people nervous?

I assume it’s because people don’t regularly interact with people with disabilities. I wish people would understand that we want to be treated like everyone else. You don’t have to run away when you see me coming down the aisle at the local supermarket. As you’ve already commented, “I drive it pretty well,” and I won’t run you over. I promise! You don’t have to apologize and jump to the side waiting for me to pass when we are in the same area as if you were in my way. Typically the aisles are big enough for us both. Simply treat me as if you would anyone else coming down that particular aisle.

Wheelchair comments.

There was one occasion when I was approached by someone who commented on my wheelchair and I was not offended. A gentleman stated to me, “That’s really cool that your chair goes up like that. I bet it makes things more accessible.” You see, I have what’s called I-Level on my wheelchair, allowing me to raise my chair up to, you guessed it, eye level with standing individuals. It is incredibly convenient when shopping with my husband because I can talk to him more easily and reach things I wouldn’t usually be able to reach. I am blessed to be able to have it on my chair. That statement was not condescending in any way. It didn’t put me down, or make me feel as if I was being treated differently than anyone else. He merely made an observation about something not too common on wheelchairs in a tasteful way. I have no problem with that statement, and I welcome such interactions.

People often take pride in their wheelchairs. They are customizable with color, style, and accessories. Commenting on the awesome color of a wheelchair, or a cool feature of said wheelchair is a nice way of validating the personal style of the individual using the device. If you don’t feel comfortable commenting on someone’s wheelchair, but absolutely feel the need to say something to ease your own uncomfortable feelings in the moment, you can always compliment someone on their outfit, hair style, or other features. We are people beyond the wheelchair, and we like compliments too.

If you feel uncomfortable, statements such as “what happened to you?” “what’s wrong with you?” or “how did you end up in that thing?” are unacceptable and demeaning. By making such statements, you are assuming we are less of a person, or that something must have happened to us for us to be using a wheelchair at such a young age. There are multiple disabilities that are present at birth which require the use of a mobility aid. By assuming something bad happened to someone using a wheelchair or other mobility aid you are taking away their identity. Many people with congenital disabilities are proud of who they are with their disability, and by assuming that something bad happened to them you are saying their birth was a mistake.

Please remember that people using wheelchairs are not “speed racers,” and do not want to race you, just as someone wearing tennis shoes is not always looking for a tennis match. People wearing yoga pants aren’t always on their way to yoga. A wheelchair is a mobility aid and not a “fun” racing device. Sure it’s fun to race other wheelchairs sometimes, but that is not why I have the chair. Furthermore, just because I am a woman using an electric wheelchair does not mean you need to comment on my gender or my ability to drive.

People with disabilities have to overcome adversity every day. Whether it is a physical obstacle limiting our access to public places, or a mental perception that we are capable of less than what we are. We survive and continue to thrive despite our many obstacles. Please don’t ruin our day by adding to our plethora of barriers, and treat us like the humans we are. Thank you.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock image by George Doyle.

Find this story helpful? Share it with someone you care about.

Related to Disability

beautiful drone image of the golden cupola of the Colorado state capital building in the city of Denver

What WalletHub's List of Disability Friendly Cities Gets Wrong

Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Karin Willison, The Mighty’s disability editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway. The personal finance website WalletHub recently released its list of the most disability-friendly cities in the [...]
Accessible parking space in the rain.

When People With Disabilities Judge Each Other

Being judgmental is possibly one of the most common habits humans possess. And it’s a pretty ugly habit. Everyone who judges has probably been judged themselves at some time in their lives, and  knows how horrible it feels. People are judged on their appearance, the clothes they wear, their piercings, their tattoos, their intelligence, their [...]
The author holding a rainbow flag, artistic rendering.

My New Journey Coming Out as LGBT With a Disability

Anyone who knows me knows I have a passion for advocating, Disney, animals and helping others.  For so many years, giving so much of myself resulted in neglecting my health and my identity. I was trapped in the idea that I’d do what was instilled in my head from a young age: work hard, get married [...]

8 Halloween Alternatives for Kids With Disabilities

I have two kids with disabilities, and two of them have sensory issues. My youngest, in fact, has a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder. While all my kids love candy, Halloween has not always been a happy celebration. We have been that family, hiding in our home with the lights off so nobody would ring the doorbell. [...]