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Dear Parents, Please Teach Your Children About Wheelchairs

I am very new to being in a wheelchair. It’s been a bit of an emotional journey, but the use of a wheelchair has given me back the opportunity to live an almost “normal” life despite my health. Besides the struggle for independence, my emotional reactions and practical travel and accessibility, another new element of my life that I’ve struggled to come to terms with is interacting with children as a wheelchair user.

I have always been a child friendly person. I always smile at children, offer to help parents who seem flustered and I have worked both in mainstream and specialist schools. Interacting with children has always come naturally to me. Even when I got sick I was lucky enough to be able to explain it in a non-scary way to my 6-year-old cousin, and I like to think I had some part in her new wish to be a doctor when she grows up. But when it comes to children I don’t know in public there are some aspects that are very difficult or even scary for me. I do my best to manage, but here’s how parents can help children understand how to act around someone in a wheelchair.

Firstly, there’s the physical aspects of wheelchair etiquette. The amount of times I have had children try to climb my wheelchair, not move out of the way when I am going down a hill or otherwise unable to alter my course, or even try to stick their fingers in my wheels as I am wheeling is shocking. I even had one particular young boy follow me for quite a while desperately trying to shove his foot under my wheels, despite me asking him and his mother to stop. I live in perpetual fear of hurting a child with my chair. I have cared for some of the most complex children out there who often refuse to listen to dangers so believe me, I know how hard it can be to explain safety to a curious child. I think these things happen because of a lack of teaching and understanding.

Most of the time these aren’t naughty children. These are children who are uncertain as to what is correct, polite or safe to do in this situation. Most children quickly learn to be safe near roads and hold a parent’s hand. Road and car safety is so ingrained in children’s brains that it helps to protect them in most situations, but no such education happens with most children about wheelchairs. I’ve had children have many close calls or actually hurt themselves on my chair, and I never know what to say to their poor parents. If you have a child, odds are you will meet a person in a wheelchair, so please teach them what to do and what not to do, for their safety if nothing else.

You also don’t know why that person is in a chair. When a person moves or jerks my chair it can cause me horrific pain. It can cause me to double over or scream, which I hate to have happen, not because of the pain (I am pretty used to that by now) but because of the fear I see in children’s faces. It breaks my heart to see it and to know I am part of the cause.

If you have a child, please explain that wheelchairs may not be able to move out of the way easily. Teach children that if they can move out of a wheelchair user’s way it would be very much appreciated. Also warn children of the dangers of wheels. My wheels are thick and have lots of metal spokes, not to mention they are quite heavy. When children stick their fingers in them or put their feet under the wheels as I am going, I may not always see.  When I am in my chair I am often struggling to move and fighting through a lot of pain and as much as I try, I can’t see every child who runs at my chair. Please ask your children to be safe with their hands and feet. If you would stop your child from thrusting themselves at a car, then stop them thrusting themselves at a wheelchair.

Wheelchair etiquette is about more than just safety. It’s about respect. One mum I will never forget was a mother of a fair few children (at least four) who were shoving past and almost into my chair without asking or even looking at me. As soon as she saw them forcing their way into me through a tight space, she immediately told them to stop, but it wasn’t just that. She told them to have some respect. She reminded them in that moment that I was a person, that I had feelings and wasn’t just an obstacle in their way. I never expect mothers to have a million eyes, but when you see something, say something.

This mother made me feel like a person again on a very rough day, and after she said this her children looked me in the eyes and they could see me for me. I smiled at them and told them it was OK, just to please not do it again. They were honestly the sweetest children, but if a child doesn’t know what to do in these situations, they can’t be expected to figure it out on their own. If you teach them to see us as people, it can help prevent these challenges. It also helps them to not be scared of us. So please teach them before it happens.

Finally I have one more thing to ask from parents, and this to me is perhaps the most important thing. I ask that you teach your children it’s OK to ask questions. Not everyone will have the time to answer, but they can’t learn if they don’t ask. Being a parent can mean constant questions, I know it gets tiring, but the ones about others’ differences are so important. You have the power to teach your child to always be kind and accepting. Shushing them and ushering them away or even telling them off for asking just makes them more scared and more uncertain.

It makes a huge difference, and I have seen it in so many children. I was in a shop once and I saw a girl be quite scared of me, which is understandable to be honest. I am in a huge chair and she didn’t know why. I smiled at her and told her that her shoes were pretty. She smiled back and her tiny brother chimed in saying he had brand new speedy socks. After some laughs and talking with the mother, the boy looked at me and asked why I was in a wheelchair. Was it my legs, did my legs not work right? His mother’s face dropped. I would say to any mum in this situation, don’t worry. Don’t be embarrassed. Let your child ask, if you have an answer give it, if not help them find the answer. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. I responded that no it wasn’t my legs, but my tummy. He thought about this for a moment, smiled and said I should get speedy socks and that would fix me.

I think this little boy was onto something there. He was polite, careful and respectful and he even tried to help me. If the mum of the boy in Primark telling me to get speedy socks ever reads this, know your son has a pure soul and that he was right, I should absolutely get some speedy socks and I am sure they would fix things.

Meeting someone in a wheelchair doesn’t have to be scary, so help it be a safe and normal experience.

Getty image by Carlos David.