The Etiquette of Interacting with a Wheelchair User
The etiquette of interacting with a wheelchair user is rather simple if we make it so. From an early age, we learn our society’s rules for interacting with one another; however, society doesn’t offer clear-cut standards for interacting with people who use wheelchairs. When meeting a person using a mobility device in public or social situations, some people might freeze up, act in a patronizing way, or ignore the person completely.
People are people—no matter what.
While a wheelchair is a great tool, people who use wheelchairs often deal with weird interactions from other people. Here are a few tips for navigating the etiquette of interacting with a person who uses a wheelchair.
1. Make Eye Contact
Sometimes when people feel awkward, they refuse to make eye contact. People with disabilities deserve the acknowledgment that comes with making eye contact. Never intentionally ignore someone in a wheelchair. Make eye contact, whether you choose to smile, nod, or say a greeting.
2. Never Assume
Many well-intentioned people make assumptions about people who use wheelchairs. Don’t do it. Never assume that you know a person’s abilities simply because they use a wheelchair. It’s possible that a person in a wheelchair is relieving back pain or avoiding overexertion. If you’re going to make any type of assumption, assume that the person using a wheelchair is a regular human being who is using a tool to maximize their mobility.
3. Speak Normally
Sometimes people not only ignore a person using a wheelchair by not making eye contact but also seem to refuse to talk to them as well. Many people will speak only to the caretaker or to the family and friends with the person using a wheelchair. This is rude. Take the time to engage in conversation with the person in the wheelchair rather than literally talking over their head.
4. No Comments Please
Don’t focus conversations with a person who uses a wheelchair on the wheelchair. The wheelchair is like a bicycle, scooter, or another mode of transportation. When speaking with someone who uses a wheelchair, talk to them about life, their passions, your life, and other topics. The only exception to not bringing up the wheelchair is if you’re looking to purchase a wheelchair yourself.
5. Respect Personal Space
Due to the height difference between someone who is standing and someone who is using a wheelchair, any unsolicited touch can feel patronizing. Do not touch, lean on, push, or handle a wheelchair without the specific direction of the wheelchair user. Some wheelchair users view a wheelchair as not only a tool but an extension of their own body. Therefore, keep your hands to yourself. If you see a reason to touch the wheelchair, ask first.
6. Don’t Use Accessible Parking Spots or Restroom Stalls
Sure, you can use that parking spot or stall for just five seconds, but you never know when a person with a wheelchair is going to show up and legitimately need that accessible space. The accessible parking spots and the restroom stalls are created for ease and mobility of people with wheelchairs. Don’t get in the way of that, unless it’s a bathroom emergency.
7. Sit Down for Long Conversations
While you don’t want to ignore someone in a wheelchair, you also don’t want to force them to look up at you for long stretches of time during a conversation. If you are enjoying the conversation and want to continue it, suggest moving to an area where the person standing can sit down. Although it might be tempting to bend down or crouch, that can seem patronizing. Opt for a chair.
8. Allow a Wheelchair User to Help
Sometimes, someone using a wheelchair may offer to help with carrying bags or some other task. If this happens, accept their help. A wheelchair user knows their ability best, and everyone appreciates the opportunity to help someone else rather than always be helped.
9. Never Ask for a Ride
Wheelchairs are not toys. Train your children to be respectful of the equipment of a wheelchair and the personal space of people who use wheelchairs. No one should climb or play on the wheelchair. In some cases, adults need to be reminded that a wheelchair is not just something for a joy ride. Be considerate of the person who is using the wheelchair.
10. Appropriately Offer Help
Many people who use wheelchairs are highly independent and ingenious, finding unique solutions for life’s challenges. However, you can offer your help if you notice a wheelchair user is struggling to reach something on a shelf or some other task. Always ask and wait for their response before doing anything.
11. Feel Free to Ask
If you aren’t sure how to deal with a certain situation, ask. Taking the effort to learn how to appropriately interact shows care and consideration. You’ll learn what to do should the circumstance arise, and you may even deepen the friendship because you took an extra step rather than just assuming. The key component for learning the etiquette of interacting with a wheelchair user is to not assume how to act, and just treat a person in a wheelchair as a person—that's what they are!
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