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