I’ve spent three decades of my life in a wheelchair. I know firsthand that my situation can be disconcerting to others. People tend to either completely ignore me or overcompensate by saying and doing things that make everyone uncomfortable.
Here are some thoughts and advice on ways to help you be more at ease around wheelchair users — so we can move on to being friends:
Treat a person in a wheelchair like any other stranger. Do you smile at strangers in the grocery store? Extend that same courtesy to me.
Make eye contact, but don’t stare. It’s okay to shake my hand, but please be gentle. Yes, we’ve all been taught a handshake should be firm, but you could injure me.
I like making new friends. And one day — when we know each other well enough — we’ll talk about why I use a wheelchair.
If you saw someone struggling to reach an item on a high shelf, would you assist them? Then offer to help the wheelchair user. Always ask first, but don’t be offended if someone refuses — we do appreciate the offer.
Would you ask a stranger why they wear glasses? Nope. So why ask me why I’m in a wheelchair? Also, please don’t immediately ask about my disease. This line of questioning quickly becomes far more personal than I am comfortable discussing with a stranger. Instead, ask me if I like to cook, then tell me about your killer recipe for guacamole.
Many people feel an awkward struggle with choosing their words around me. There’s no need to alter your language. It’s okay to say, “Let’s take a walk.”
Be mindful about assumptions; not everyone who uses a wheelchair is elderly. When I was in my thirties and the mother of a toddler, strangers often assumed — and constantly referred to me — as my son’s grandmother.
Please don’t tell me how nice it is to see me out and about or what an inspiration I am. I’m just another person living in the world. And please don’t announce you are praying for me. If you truly care, pray silently.
My wheelchair replaces my legs and allows me to get around. When the physical world accommodates, I can easily maneuver. The obstacles I face are often created by others. For example: people who park in handicapped spaces without a permit. Do you park in the blue stripes beside a handicapped spot? Don’t. That prevents me from opening the ramp of my wheelchair-accessible van.
My wheelchair is an extension of my body and, as such, it’s inappropriate for a stranger to touch it. If you do literally push my buttons (or joystick), my 350-lb. chair might accidentally run over your foot. Don’t lean on my wheelchair. When I move, you might fall down.
I don’t mind questions from children; they are naturally curious. As a mom, I understand how direct they can be, but there’s no need for you to be embarrassed or correct them for it. What I do mind is someone patting me on the head like I’m a child as well. It’s condescending.
There’s no need to squat down to talk to me. I appreciate that you want to be eye-to-eye, but it isn’t necessary. Instead, look for a spot where you can sit so both of us are comfortable. Let’s get to know one another over a cup of coffee. We can discuss books we’re reading or our mutual love of painting.
I like making new friends. And one day — when we know each other well enough — we’ll talk about why I use a wheelchair. I’ll explain about my progressive neuromuscular disease. You’ll ask more questions and I’ll answer, because that’s what friends do — share who we are as people first, beyond whatever circumstances either of us are in.
(Next Avenue invites opinion pieces that reflect a range of perspectives. Doing so helps our readers learn about views from a multitude of experts.)
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