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A Crash Course in Wheelchair Etiquette

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Dining etiquette has many rules. Most people start learning them early, with simple instructions from our parents like “No elbows on the table” and “don’t slurp your soup.” As we get older, there are resources to help us learn the finer points of etiquette, from newspaper columns to books and even classes. Similarly, we are taught social skills from an early age like “don’t interrupt,” “don’t stare,” etc. However, as I’ve gotten older, it has become increasingly clear that many people, adults and children alike, are not being taught how to interact politely with wheelchair users. Here are some tips for when you first meet someone in a wheelchair. Keep in mind some people may have preferences that are different from the suggestions made here. Use your best judgment and ask questions as you get to know people.

1. You don’t need to crouch down to talk to us. That will probably hurt your knees, and it can sometimes make wheelchair users feel awkward.

2. Our wheelchairs are not toys. Our wheelchairs are expensive pieces of medical equipment that we need to have to be independent and mobile. We understand that children are curious about our chairs, but please do not let them play with, climb on, or climb under our chairs. It’s not safe for your kiddos, it’s nerve-wracking and a breach of personal space for us, and it could result in injury to both of us and/or broken equipment. If something of yours has fallen under my chair, just let me know and we will figure out the best way to get it.

3. Please feel free to ask me questions or let your children/grandchildren/nieces/nephews/siblings/students ask questions. I will happily tell your truck-loving toddler how the brakes work and how fast I can go, demo a small wheelie (with your kid a safe distance away, please!) for your kids, or answer any other questions if I have time. Please don’t be offended if I say I’m in a rush and can’t answer questions at that time. I want to when I can, but it’s not always possible.

4. Wheelchair users are entitled to personal space. I referenced personal space before, and it’s worth mentioning as its own guideline as well. Do not touch me or my chair without my permission. It is rude, it is awkward, and it could injure me depending on what you are doing. I have been in many situations where people will randomly lean on my chair as they walk past or while bending over to pick something up. While I sympathize with the need to have extra support sometimes (when I walk, I require forearm crutches, ankle-foot orthotics, and frequent breaks), please just use your words and ask instead of assuming it’s okay to lean on my chair.

5. I’m not a pack mule. If we are out together and you have a heavy purse, a sweater or a schoolbag, don’t put your belongings on the back of my chair without asking first. Any added weight on my chair makes it that much harder to push. Small things may be OK, but check with me first.

6. Please ask before helping us. It’s a nice impulse to want to help us push our wheelchairs, especially up a steep ramp or if we have a lot to carry, but please ask first. Sometimes we simply may not want or need the help. If you start pushing us without asking first, you could easily startle us or injure our hands if you suddenly start pushing us faster than we were going before. We are often capable of more than you might expect. Don’t underestimate our abilities just because we use a wheelchair.

7. Calling us “speed racer” or “hot wheels” and challenging us to a race might have been funny the first couple times we heard it, but the older we are, the older those jokes have gotten for us. We’ve literally heard them all before. If you feel awkward or nervous around wheelchair users and don’t know what to say, just say hi or whatever you would say to start a conversation with a non-wheelchair user. If you really feel like you need something to break the ice, tell us you like the color of our wheelchair or the pattern on our AFOs — or gasp something not related to our disability like our smile or our makeup or our bada** karaoke skills. A lot of times we have input on the colors of our equipment, so complimenting our unique style will probably make our day.

8. Don’t park in accessible parking spaces if you don’t have a disability and a disability placard or sticker. I understand it’s a long walk from the parking lot to the store, but we need that space to unfold our wheelchairs and other mobility devices. Even if you’re “just parking there for a second,” it could still be an issue for a wheelchair user.

9. Please don’t use the wheelchair accessible restroom stalls if you don’t need them, unless there are no other stalls available and/or it’s a bathroom emergency (which I promise I do sympathize with). I need to be able to transfer from my chair to the toilet, and some people need to catheterize from their wheelchair into the toilet. Those tasks aren’t possible in small stalls.

10. If you own a business, study the Americans With Disabilities Act and comply with it. People in wheelchairs deserve accessible buildings and safe spaces. The ADA is not a new law and should be followed to the letter for our safety and quality of life. It’s that simple.

11. Talk to us directly and age-appropriately. If someone is nonverbal and needs to have help communicating with you, they will let you know. Please don’t ask my mom what I want to eat, what my name is, “can she talk?” or “what’s wrong with her?” I’ll let you know when I look at the menu, it’s Jane but you can call me Janie if you wish, yes I can talk, and having a disability doesn’t mean anything is “wrong” with me. Also, don’t assume I’m deaf or hard of hearing. If someone is, they will let you know. You don’t need to shout at us, speak unusually slowly, or use a baby voice. Again, don’t underestimate us. I am a college-educated, intelligent, artistic, sarcastic, independent 25-year-old. And for the love of all that is holy, don’t pat us on the head. I know I’m adorable, but I’m not a puppy. Pat puppies, not people!

12. Think before you speak. Comments like “I used a wheelchair for a broken leg once, so I totally get what it’s like to be disabled!” and “you’re so lucky you have that chair. Running/walking/dancing is overrated!” are inappropriate and embarrassing. Having a broken leg is most definitely not the same as being disabled. Until you have had to learn to catheterize in order to fully empty your bladder, dealt with chronic pressure sores, felt a Chiari headache when the weather changed or you dared to laugh too hard, or cried when you had a growth spurt that altered your center of balance and ability to walk, I’m sorry but you don’t know what my experience with disability has been like.

As for the second comment, you’re right that I am lucky to have this chair in the sense it is something I am lucky to have access to. However, I can’t run or jump or ice skate or take dancing lessons (without a wheelchair, anyway) or gymnastics lessons. I prefer to focus on what I can do. I can sing. I can take care of my precious nephew and adorable pets. I can go out with my friends. I can draw. I can paint. Reminding me of the things I can’t do makes me feel left out. I understand that people are probably just trying to connect with us when they make comments like this, but they still can be hurtful whether intentionally or not. Let’s try to accentuate the positives instead of dwelling on the negatives! Connect with us by finding common ground, telling us jokes, and swapping stories, as you would with anyone else.

13. Please do not assume I hate my life or that you couldn’t handle my circumstances if you had to. People are incredibly resilient and can often handle more than they realize. Saying things like “I’d just curl up and die if I had your disability” or similarly dramatic responses are hurtful. Trust me, you would not curl up and die. You would adapt and learn and research, and yes, sometimes you’d be sad or angry about your circumstances. My life isn’t always easy, but it is worth living. I am happy, loved, talented, and fulfilled.

14. When you aren’t sure how to handle a situation, just ask. I don’t bite, promise! I love when people make the effort to learn something new. If you can’t find someone to ask, look for blog posts, articles or books written by people with disabilities. If that’s not an option, use your best judgment.

15. Don’t be sorry. When I tell you about my disability, you don’t have to say “oh, I’m sorry.” I realize this may be due to not knowing what to say. In fact, I’m guilty of it as well. However, there are better ways to respond. Something like, “I’m not familiar with (fill in the blank)” gives people the opportunity to tell you more about their disability if they wish, or just change the subject if they don’t want to get into more detail. If we’re telling you about a painful symptom or an upcoming surgery or something serious like that, you could always say “I’m thinking of you and am always willing to listen if you need to vent.”

16. Please don’t comment on aspects of our appearance that can’t be changed in a minute or two. If I have spinach in my teeth, toilet paper on my wheel, or my shirt is rolled up in the back, sure, let me know so I can fix that. If it has to do with height, weight, or a disability-related deformity or scar (of which I have several), it’s better not to draw attention to those things.

17. I am not “pretty for someone in a wheelchair” or “dressed stylishly for a person in a wheelchair.” Everyone is different and has their own unique style, wheelchair-user or otherwise.

I hope this crash course in disability etiquette has been helpful, and that you will use your knowledge to help make the world a friendlier and safer place for people with disabilities. Have a lovely day!

Getty image by Shironosov.

Originally published: April 25, 2018
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