International Wheelchair Day!

As today is International Wheelchair Day I thought I would take the opportunity to do a short post on wheelchair etiquette.

Me on a very windy day in Blackpool

Many people still don’t know how to react to a person in a wheelchair and behave in all kinds of bizarre and embarrassing ways they wouldn’t with any other adult or bodily appendage.

So for today’s blog post I have come up with 10 tips for when you meet a wheelchair user:

  1. Don’t assume that the wheelchair is a tragedy. For many of us our chair is our freedom, something that allows us to be out in the world like everyone else.
  2. Never ever jump straight in with questions like “What happened to you?” “How did you end up in there?” or “What’s wrong with you?” – if you don’t know us, our medical history is no more your business than that of any other stranger you might pass the time with.
  3. If you have children, they will stare. It’s in their nature to want to understand and learn about new things. Talk to the child about disabled people, and help them to understand why people use wheelchairs. Don’t discourage children from asking questions of a person who uses a wheelchair about their wheelchair – we are friendly! Open communication helps overcome fearfulness and leads to a better future.
  4. Always ask if a person would like assistance rather than just jumping in and helping. This is important because many of us like to be as independent as possible and also because we have to make sure to use what function we do have in order to keep our fitness levels up. It can be absolutely terrifying if a stranger ‘helps’ by pushing your wheelchair without asking, please never do this.
  5. Do not lean on a person’s wheelchair. You wouldn’t lean on any other stranger in a lift or on a train so why do people think it’s OK to lean on me? My wheelchair is not only inside my personal space it is an extension of my body. Leaning on a wheelchair is not only rude it can cause pain to the disabled person and can be dangerous. Manual wheelchairs are often quite ‘tippy’ so we can get ourselves up low kerbs and your weight on the back could be enough to topple the chair over backwards.
  6. Speak to the person in the wheelchair not another person who is accompanying them or pushing their chair – even if that person is an interpreter. Never assume another adult they are with is their carer.
  7. It is OK to use normal everyday terms like “run along” or “let’s go for a walk” when talking to a wheelchair user – we don’t expect you to use special language. I always say I walked somewhere even though I went in my chair, rolled just doesn’t work somehow!
  8. If a person has an assistance dog never pet it without permission. Distracting assistance dogs is dangerous as owners rely on them for many things including detecting danger or sensing oncoming epileptic seizures.
  9. Don’t be shocked if a wheelchair user should stand up to get something. Many wheelchair users can do a small amount of walking using aids suited to them. Wheelchairs serve many different purposes for people with many different types of disability from cerebral palsy to paraplegia to Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Wheelchairs help us deal with symptoms such as severe fatigue, pain, fainting, limbs that don’t co-operate or even all of the above.
  10. We’ve heard all of the “speed limit” and “driving license” jokes before, you’re not original or clever – sorry! I know it can be hard to come up with small talk but please leave these cliché phrases at home.

Most importantly focus on the person and if you are unsure – ask!

7 thoughts on “International Wheelchair Day!

  1. I’d like to add an additional wheelchair tip: people in crowded places (especially airports) like to step over my legs instead of walking around me. This puts them right in my lap, and I’ve been whacked in the face by their purse/packages/luggage more than once. So please, do not “step over” a wheelchair like it’s a fallen log…there’s a human sitting it!

  2. Oh, yes. Don’t forget the delightful people who walk along swinging their bags at *just* the right height to slam into a chair user’s face (or, on one painfully memorable occasion, dislocate all the fingers on my right hand when they’re sitting on the controls!).

    Or the crowd who seem to think if you don’t smile at them for doing something they should do – like moving a buggy out of the chair spot on the bus when they ought not have put it there in the first place (especially when the buggy space is/was empty!) – you’re an ungrateful b*stard & they won’t do it for anyone else ever again. Transport for Greater Manchester don’t help this attitude with their patronising “A little favour for a big smile”(!) line at the end of their posters about moving or folding buggies to let chair users into the wheelchair space on buses… Why should I be forced to smile when someone acts like a reasonable human being & treats me with what’s supposedly common courtesy? I have TMJ disorder; sometimes my jaw dislocates; & right now I’m waiting for a dental clearance. Smiling is painful. Not everybody can do it, & people shouldn’t be bullied for not doing so (I’m sure you’ve heard some of the same verbal abuse I have if you use public transport or pressured into trying.

    Oh, and one of my *favourite* groups… the people who seem to think that having wheels means you can turn faster than they can, so they can keep walking at you and expect *you* to take the evasive action… I find this even worse when done by buggy owners, because I expect them to know only too well that wheels don’t turn that easily, that quickly all the time – have you ever pushed a buggy with wheels that did what you wanted & not what it did? *sighs* And I get verbal abuse for it when they don’t turn. I swear nobody in Manchester walks in a straight line. It makes me crazy. (Not being ableist, am bipolar so can say that.)

    Also, I swear half the non-wheelies out there seem to think that standing in front of someone in a chair at a bus stop is totally fine because they’re somehow transparent & we can see through them to tell when the right bus is coming… It’s just logic – I’m sitting down, ergo my head is at a much lower height than yours & I can’t see through you! x_x;

    I’m really tired of the ignorant sods who assume I can never be part of queues, too, I swear. The number of times I’ve been waiting in a queue & “next” has been called & the standing adult behind me has stepped forward to take my place… grrrr.

    Sorry hon, I didn’t intend this to become a full-blown rant!


  3. I love this post so much! I’m lucky that I’ve not experienced all of these yet, but I know I will. The worst experience I’ve had in the couple of weeks I’ve had my chair was on my first outing. A stranger came up to me & said “at least you have a lovely smile” & patted my cheek (which hurt!). I’ve no idea how she thought this was acceptable behaviour! Xx

    Tania | When Tania Talks

    1. It amazes me what people think is ‘acceptable’ to say to wheelchair users, a few of us have been told we’re “too pretty” to be in a wheelchair!

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