As a user of a power wheelchair since I was five, I’ve become quite the expert on etiquette for interacting with someone in a wheelchair. As an extremely outspoken person, I haven’t hesitated to let people know that they should or shouldn’t do something with regard to a wheelchair. Here are some basic tips I believe everyone should take into consideration the next time they interact with a wheelchair user.
- Don’t lean on my chair. I’m a firm believer of personal boundaries. I barely like it when people I’m fond of get inside of my personal bubble, let alone someone I have never met. I like that my wheelchair expands my personal bubble a little further than usual. Whenever someone invades that boundary — especially when I don’t know them — it makes me irritable. People tend to lean on my armrest or the back of my seat. How would you feel if you’re at a concert and someone you’ve never met puts their elbow on your shoulder? Some people wouldn’t mind, but most people would. It’s the same thing. My chair is a part of me because I rely on it so much. I spend about 75 percent of my day in my chair. It’s my legs, so please don’t treat it like another piece of furniture. Note: I have read some articles that say wheelchair users want to be perceived as separate entities from their wheelchair. Great! We’re all different and have different opinions. To be sure, ask the person. Don’t assume.
- Respect my personal boundaries. Expanding off the first topic, respect my own bodily boundaries. One time I was standing next to my sister, talking to her and my dad, who was on the phone. My body language was not open and inviting. Someone still came up to me and held my arm (the one holding the phone). I stopped talking, looked at her and asked if she needed something. She just wanted to see how my arm felt. One, don’t interrupt my conversation to satisfy your own curiosity. Two, it is not OK to touch me. I barely hug my close friends. I’m not comfortable with being touched. This includes my arm, shoulder, leg (way too intimate) or head (which is patronizing).
- Focus on me, not the wheelchair. So often, I hear various types of phrases that place emphasis on my wheelchair and not on me as a person. Common phrases directed at my wheelchair and not at me are as follows:
- “Scooter girl.”
- “Slow down or I’ll give you a ticket.”
- “Hey speed demon.” (The person who says this uses it as a name, and I don’t think he’s ever used my name.)
- “Do you want to race?” (When this happens, I let the person run ahead of me like a fool while I just sit there and wait.)
- “Get out of the way!” This is commonly told to people around me, as though I’m going to slaughter anyone who dares get in front of me. Most the time, I’m just taking my time. If I have somewhere to go to, I’ll politely say, “Excuse me.”
- “Do you know what this thing needs …”A rocket?! No. First, this “thing” is my wheelchair, which is used for allowing me to independently move around without having to ask someone for help. Second, my wheelchair is perfect and it does everything it needs to do. I don’t need any recommendations.
- Don’t change your language use for me. Nothing makes it more obvious that you’re talking with someone “different” than when you change your usual phrases around the person. An example is, “Let’s go for a walk.” I’m not offended by someone saying “walk” instead of “roll.” Personally, I don’t like switching out words like that because it does place an emphasis on the fact that I use a wheelchair. I take my dog for a walk. If I took her for a roll, she wouldn’t be too interested.
- Please don’t try to move my wheelchair for me. I’ve mastered moving my wheelchair from outside of the wheelchair. If I need the chair moved out of reach, I’m usually with a trusted friend or family member who has driven my wheelchair before so they will move it. I get annoyed when a person starts pulling on the armrest, trying to move the chair out of the way. If my chair moved with a simple tug, I’d be worried. I am cognizant of fire regulations and keeping aisles clear so if the chair needs to be moved, I’ll take care of it.
- Ask if the wheelchair user needs help. I respect it when people offer to help me. It’s nice. Really, I’m not being sarcastic. It’s important, however, to remember to ask first. When I put my winter coat on, it looks similar to me flailing around in my coat. It might look a little chaotic and like I need help. I’ve been putting my coat on for years, so I’ve mastered it. I know what I’m doing and I can do it myself (right, Dad?). I don’t mind when people ask, but sometimes when it looks like I’m struggling, I’m doing it my way.
- Be cognizant when inviting me to certain events. I love going out as much as the next person. I’m very active, and I don’t like staying at home. Please, invite me to things. Don’t be afraid to invite me along, because I’m hilarious! However, please be aware of the type of outing and keep me informed. Are we going outside? Are we staying inside? Is it an all-day thing? Are we going to multiple places? Is the venue accessible? One time I was invited to a bridal shower at someone’s home. When I contacted the person who was in charge, they apologized because the house had multiple steps to get inside. The party was for a person I was fairly close to, and I was really bummed that I couldn’t support her by attending her party.
- Treat me like anyone else. If you’re hesitant about what to say to me and how to act around me, ask yourself if you would feel comfortable being on the receiving side. Most likely, you wouldn’t appreciate patronizing attitudes, personal space invasion and broad assumptions concerning your capabilities.
As I mentioned before, wheelchair users are all different. Ask about personal preferences if you feel uncomfortable. Make sure to keep the line of communication open so the wheelchair user can let you know how they feel. Please don’t take offense to any correction from us. For the most part, we just want to educate you for future interactions. I don’t know about anyone else, but I tend to forget about the correction shortly after it’s made.
Anna Corbitt is the Youth and Family Specialist at Paraquad. She can be reached at email@example.com.