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Why You Shouldn't Touch Someone's Wheelchair Without Permission

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You wouldn’t grab a person’s walking stick…

You wouldn’t take a person’s cane from them…

So why do so many able-bodied people think it’s fine to move a person’s wheelchair without consulting the person who uses it?

A lot of people see me in a wheelchair as a chance to do a “good deed” of the day. To help the poor disabled person do something they obviously can’t do on their own… but generally, we can. It might take a bit longer, but we can.

While getting into position to wheel myself off of a bus, I might go back and forwards a bit to align myself. The bus isn’t exactly a large area; it’s a narrow pathway, I have to maneuver around bars, and sometimes people won’t even move a bag two inches to the left to make it simpler. Just because I didn’t manage to perfectly exit the bus in five seconds, that doesn’t mean I can’t do it. I can — it’s important to me that I do it, especially as I’m newish to my wheelchair (around 9 months now; when this happened I was in my first month).

Getting the wheelchair was scary, but it became a real rush when I got used to it. It wasn’t something that meant I failed like I thought at first, but rather a tool to give me back the mobility I had been steadily losing. It was something that would give me back some independence I was sorely missing! That’s why it’s important I do some things myself, especially on a bus or in a building as I can’t maneuver the wheelchair on pavements or outside, as my arms are too weak.

One day I was taking a few seconds to get off a bus, when suddenly a random woman grabbed my chair, dragged it sideways and pushed me towards the ramp and my carers. She spoke to my carers, “I thought I’d better help out.” She didn’t speak to me; she didn’t ask permission. I didn’t have enough time to even get my hands off the wheels before she moved me. She didn’t even consider me worth talking to about it, preferring to talk to other able-bodied people instead of me. I got a pat on the shoulder and a “there you go,” and that woman likely went away feeling like she did this amazing good deed. I was left deflated, sad and with a sore finger that got caught in the spokes.

Another thing to bus drivers: When a wheelchair user is looking to access your bus, your job is to get up and put the ramp down. No, I can’t make the gap. Not without potentially jarring the wheelchair and therefore, me. It hurts. Generally I try to avoid pain, not take pointless risks that can result in more pain. The ramp is there for a reason. Jumping the gap in a wheelchair isn’t safe.

Nothing else, except maybe to ask what stop they are getting off at, so as to ensure the disabled person doesn’t have to move until the bus is completely stationary.

Another little story. A bus driver, who many passengers on the bus claimed was amazing, seemed to have an aversion to the ramp. The gap was around half a foot… there was no chance. Having a smiling happy bus driver looking at me and repeatedly insisting, “Go on, you can make it!” was incredibly stressful for me. I just wanted to get on the bus, yet this was holding up everyone, and it was extremely embarrassing. I just wanted to vanish into the void as I was coming across as difficult by not “at least trying.” Having good hearing I picked up on a few people irritated by the hold up… irritated at me, not the driver.

The driver then got up. I was just thankful that finally, he was going to put the ramp down for me so I could get in the bus!

Sadly, I was wrong. He took hold of my wheelchair without asking, and pulled me back, tipping my front wheels off the ground. My wheelchair isn’t a fancy one, it’s a simple lightweight foldable manual chair. It’s not weighted to allow me to go onto my back wheels, so I was terrified. It was like when you tip a chair back and feel as though you’re falling. I was utterly in this stranger’s hands. If he dropped the chair I might have crashed backwards and been injured. I guess I was lucky on that point.

He then, still smiling and laughing, shoved me over the gap, quite harshly in fact. I was on the way to a doctor’s appointment, but this interaction hurt and completely exhausted me so badly that I couldn’t get the most out of the appointment. He ruined the entire excursion with these few actions.

He then went back to his seat, with several passengers commenting that he was amazing to have helped me, and so amazing that he’d be willing to do that for me. Again I was shaking, nervous and quite badly hurt. It took weeks for me to recover from that interaction physically and mentally. I’m nervous to leave the house now just in case.

Before you grab a person’s wheelchair and move them, ask if they want help. Be prepared that the answer may be no, and don’t push the point if it is. Sometimes I feel scared to tell someone to stop because they have such confidence in shoving me around. It’s hard to speak up and say no.

Wait for a yes rather than acting and expecting a no if you go too far.

As I said at the start: Would you grab a stranger and move them to a different location, unless they were in imminent danger? Would you grab a person’s walking stick off of them? Would you pull on a person’s crutch? If all of these are an obvious “No!” why would you grab a person’s wheelchair without permission?

Just a little add-on – if you see a wheelchair user with an able-bodied person, and you want to talk about the wheelchair or wheelchair user – talk to the person actually using the wheelchair. The amount of people who talk over my head about me is shocking. I’m just a person using a wheelchair, nothing more or less.

There are loads of awesome people out there who want to help, and you likely can help people often! I really don’t want to put people off helping others. I just want people to make sure the person needs and/or wants the help before you take the choice from them. I just want people to treat wheelchair users as the human beings we are.

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: January 24, 2017
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