Proper Wheelchair Etiquette
You can rest assured that no one is using a wheelchair because they want to. In fact, those who are using wheelchairs are in a unique position in which they must use the wheelchair in order to get around. It’s not proper etiquette to simply make assumptions and lean on preconceived ideas as to why someone is in a wheelchair and to assume that they can and can’t do specific things. To avoid crossing boundaries or offending anyone, you’ll have to try and be helpful and understanding to anyone who is using a wheelchair. Here are some ways that you can be more helpful.
Don’t presume that just because someone is in a wheelchair they can or can’t do something. They may not be fully paralyzed and they may be able to take a few steps on their own. You really don’t know unless you know the person well. Many use a wheelchair simply because they can’t stand for long periods of time. If you see someone who is in a wheelchair stand or take a few steps, don’t question why they’re using a wheelchair. You really don’t know the extent of their disability or their abilities. Don’t act surprised.
Greet and interact with the person in a wheelchair just as you would anyone else. They’re still a person, even if they are using a wheelchair to get around. Don’t talk to their companion about their condition, that is simply rude. Instead of asking their companion if they require assistance, ask them directly. That’s much more appropriate. Address them directly and inquire as to how you may be of assistance. If there is seating nearby, take a seat so that you’re at their level. Otherwise, stand a few feet from them so that they won’t have to crane their neck to see you.
Instead of avoiding terms like “let’s take a walk” or “run along” go ahead and use them. These are figurative terms and not literal. Even someone in a wheelchair understands this and will appreciate that you’re not trying to make adjustments to the language just to accommodate their disability. It also shows that you’re focusing on them and not on their disability.
Avoid voicing your observations such as “what happened that you’re in a wheelchair?”. This is rude. If they want you to know, they’ll tell you. It’s that simple. Don’t draw negative attention to them and strive to treat them just as you would any other friend that you have. Avoid focusing on any issues they may have getting around. Instead, focus on how you can help them and don’t share stories about others in wheelchairs or who are disabled. They really don’t need to hear this. It just puts their situation in the forefront and is a rude way to avoid talking directly to them. Think before you speak, just like you would with any other friend. If they want to discuss their condition with you, they’ll bring it up.
Never pat them or touch them or the chair without their permission. Just because they are in a seated position doesn’t mean that you should treat them in this fashion. It’s rude and condescending. Instead, ask permission first. Also keep in mind that if they have a nerve disorder, spinal issue or back issues the lightest touch may cause them excruciating pain. This is also true of touching their wheelchair, the slightest jostle unexpectedly may cause pain as well. It’s also an intrusion to their personal space. As teens would say, “personal bubble issue”. Many people in wheelchairs consider the wheelchair to be an extension of themselves.
Always be respectful of those in wheelchairs. Even if you’re not interacting with them, give them space to maneuver their wheelchair and move about. Don’t be difficult about giving them room to move about. Be thoughtful and polite. Avoid using disabled parking if you’re not supposed to, this may take up a spot for someone who desperately needs it. Even if you’re only going to be in the spot for a few minutes, be thoughtful and park in legal parking spots and avoid taking up the wheelchair spots unless you’re in a wheelchair yourself. Anyone who has a mobility disorder will appreciate your thoughtfulness.
Don’t make their lives more difficult by parking too close to their parking areas so that they can’t get out or into their vehicles. No one in a wheelchair should have to accommodate you, even if you’re only going to use the spot for five quick minutes. It’s not right and it’s not fair. One day, it may be you who is in the wheelchair and you’ll appreciate that other are thoughtful. Remember, they don’t need the exercise of parking in the far corner of a parking lot. You, however, have two good legs and can walk the distance easily. Imagine how long it would take them to roll their wheelchair to the entrance of a store not to mention the danger of cars that may be pulling in and out and not watching for wheelchairs. It’s just common courtesy to keep the handicapped spots available for those who truly need them. Don’t be selfish. Be thoughtful and considerate. Make it a daily habit to be more considerate of those with mobility disabilities and you’ll find that soon, it becomes a good habit. Being in a wheelchair isn’t a picnic. It takes dedication to get to and from where you’re going and a little consideration will go far.