Having conversations with someone in a wheelchair can sometimes be difficult if you don’t know the appropriate etiquette for doing so. We may be people, same as everyone else, just people who are sitting rather than standing – but things are admittedly a little different down here at waist height when it comes to the ways people should address us. So, I thought I’d do a classic Dos and Don’ts list for anyone new to the concept, but hopefully this also acts as a list of pet peeves which most disabled people can relate to.
1. Don’t lean on my wheelchair.
The reason why this is seen as so egregious in the disabled community is because wheelchairs are essentially an extension of their user’s body. It’s the same as going up to a stranger and placing your hand on their shoulder – You can even feel the vibrations of their hand on your shoulder through the handlebar of the wheelchair. It just feels weird and irritating.
This may seem petty to non-wheelchair users but unless you live in one you’ll never truly understand how much our wheelchairs feel like a part of us physically when we’re on the go, but take it from someone that does know: placing your hand ANYWHERE on someone’s wheelchair without permission is an invasion of personal space. This, of course, may not apply to close friends or people that the user feels comfortable with. Again, just think of it as placing your hand on someone’s shoulder – it’s cool if a friend does it during a casual conversation but not a random stranger, at least that’s how I see it.
2. Don’t crouch when you address me.
I can only speak from personal experience but I do not like it when people lean down close to my face so that they meet my eye level when they speak to me or crouch down to the ground when they address me. I realise that they only do so to show that they are on the same page as me but it’s a little patronising and, let’s face it, no one really wants someone’s face shoved in there’s – wrinkles and warts on clear display, tuna breath full blast. Just stand normally, trust me, we’re never worth the fuss of bending over anyway. 🙂
3. Don’t use patronising terms such as handicapped.
My next blog post will go more into detail about different terms used to describe disabled people but my general advice for now is: just try not to dance around the issue with patronising terms such as ‘special needs’, ‘physically-challenged’ or ‘handicapped’. Yes, I’m in a wheelchair. Yes, I’m disabled. Don’t feel the need to sugar-coat it.
4. Don’t help me without asking.
This seems like it should be a fairly simple one, a rule that sort of goes without saying, but you’d honestly be surprised. I’ve had people come up to me, take away what I was doing without a word and just finish it for me or come up behind me and just start pushing my wheelchair without my permission. No, no, no. Even a quick ‘let me just do this for you’ does not make this okay. Another classic is for people to ask if I need their help with something as their already doing it.
I’ve seriously had to tug-of-war my lunchbox away from a cleaning lady who was trying to grab it from me to open it. This also goes for carers who lift up my limbs without permission and start moving them because they presume I am not able to do so myself. I always pull my arm away and tell them to ask me first if I require help to do so. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the sentiment, but a simple ask to find out if I actually need help first would be all it takes to clear away this issue. However, most of the time if I need help, I’ll ask myself, and I’m sure others will too.
5. Don’t talk to me like I’m a child.
Most people expect that I can’t speak for myself and therefore speak to the person whose with me. I’ll never forget being at the airport where a special assistance helper came towards my family and asked my mother how old I was and my mother replied: “Why don’t you just ask her? She’s right here.” Either that or they talk to me slowly like I’m a foreign child who doesn’t speak the language, assuming my mind is disabled like my body. Just talk to me like anyone else, and even if I do turn out to have a mental health disability, still address me like a human being not an alien. Simple.
On a slightly more positive note, time for the Dos:
1. Do ask me questions.
Most people would assume that ignoring my wheelchair would be the best way to have a normal conversation with me but I’d like to think that there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the fact that everyone’s different, because we are different. Being open about our differences is much better than being in denial of the fact that I’m not like everyone else. I think that most people assume that the topic of my disability is one wreathed in taboo or something I might not want to talk about but I really don’t mind.
I know this doesn’t apply to everyone but I’d much prefer to have people asking me about my disability rather than just staring at me as if I’m an alien. Most people go to the other people around me to get information about my disease like my mother, sisters or teachers but that just feels like a whole lot of whispering happening behind my back and I’d rather they just ask me. I especially don’t mind answering questions about me from children, otherwise, how will they learn?
2. Do use common phrases.
I know some people hesitate using phrases like “going for a walk” or “running around” but don’t. I’m sure every wheelchair user has common sense and understands the fact that you’re just using a common phrase and not offending them. Don’t feel the need to translate phrases and say things like “rolling along” instead of “walking along” because it’s just silly, not everything has to be so literal – it’s the English language for goodness sake, we all know it never actually rains cats and dogs. Please don’t try to turn this into a joke either: If I start to say, “That’s not where I stand on the issue”, please don’t say, “Don’t you mean where you sit?”
3. Do relaaaax.
Like I said at the beginning of this post, people in wheelchairs are just normal people who are sitting instead of standing. While it may be nice to keep the above-mentioned points in mind be careful not to overthink this whole thing. I’m sure most disabled people are understanding when it comes to able-bodied people struggling with some of these points. I guess the number one Do when it comes to talking to someone in a wheelchair is: Do remember they are humans, and hopefully, open and understanding ones.