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10 Things Not to Say to a Wheelchair User

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In the UK alone there are over 1 million wheelchair users and each of those wheelchair users is an individual. Some people use a wheelchair full time, others part time and others only on long days out. There are many reasons people need wheelchairs, and despite the U.K. becoming more accessible, they still face many challenges. One of those challenges is other people.

Strangers and even loved ones often feel they have the right to judge and question wheelchair users, particularly if they are only a part time wheelchair user and they can sometimes walk. It can make it very difficult and upsetting for some wheelchair users to go out, and can even lead to fear of going out because a stranger might make a snide remark or ask an offensive question.

Here are 10 things many wheelchair users consider rude; please don’t say them.

1. “Do you have license plates for that thing?”

I think most people say this as a jokey icebreaker, but it’s not funny. If someone is still new to being in a wheelchair after an accident, it can be quite upsetting. If someone has not dealt with the fact they are now in a wheelchair and are sensitive about what other people think, this can have a huge effect on their self-esteem and confidence.

2. “It’s good to see someone like you out and about being independent.”

What does this even mean? People who use wheelchairs are like everyone else apart from the fact they use wheels to get around, not their legs.

3. “If you try harder you might be able to (insert everyday activity).”

I don’t know of a single wheelchair user who doesn’t try their damned hardest to do everything they can for themselves. Often people in wheelchairs get frustrated if they can’t do something independently. Please don’t remind us there are things we can’t do, just treat us like anyone else.

4. “You’re such an inspiration.”

I have had this said to me so many times. I am a wheelchair athlete and a very active wheelchair user, but that is no different to being any other active person. I have not only heard this comment while doing sports, but also when out and about. Going to the supermarket on my own doesn’t make me an inspiration; I’m just a normal person going about their everyday business.

5. “If you work on being more positive, you might be able to walk again.”

So I can’t walk because I’m negative? Right…

6. “You’re too young to be in a wheelchair.”

I didn’t know you need to be a certain age to use a wheelchair.

This one really annoys me because I feel it is incredibly judgemental. People of all ages can need a wheelchair due to a disability they were born with, an accident or an illness.

7. “Your life must be so difficult. I thought I had it tough until I met you.”

Do I struggle being in a wheelchair and having several health conditions? Honestly, yes my life can be difficult at times. Places that are supposed to be accessible are actually inaccessible and having so many health conditions takes its toll at times, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a good life. So please don’t pity me.

8. “If you start attending (insert religious worship service) you’ll be cured.”

This is very similar to someone coming up to you and saying, “can I pray for you?” Everyone has the right to believe in whichever God they want to; they also have the right to not believe in any God. Being told you need to believe in God to be cured is saying there is something wrong with you that needs to be fixed. Many people don’t seem to understand that being in a wheelchair isn’t the end of the world; you can learn to adjust and enjoy life as much as anyone else.

9. “Do you know (insert name)? S/he uses a wheelchair too.”

There are over 1 million wheelchair users in the U.K. and funnily enough, I don’t know them all. Just because I am in a wheelchair doesn’t mean the only people I know are also in wheelchairs. That’s like saying “You have a Springer spaniel, do you know (insert name)?”

10. “Can I have a go in your chair? It looks fun.”

The simple answer is and always will be no. My wheelchair is my legs, it helps me to be mobile and independent and without it I can be bed bound for days. It is not something for someone to play on/with, it’s something to help us live a “normal” life like you. Also, do you know how many thousands of pounds my wheelchair cost? It’s one of the most expensive items I own!

These are just a few of the things you shouldn’t say and questions you shouldn’t ask of a wheelchair user. Just remember, everyone is different and people who use wheelchairs are not defined by their disabilities. They’re still people so please, think before you speak and be kind.

Originally published: June 12, 2019
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