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In Their Shoes: A Sensitivity Series Wheelchair Etiquette and Safety By Meagan Greathouse


Asking for assistance for just about anything has always been difficult for me and while I’m getting better at asking for help when I need it as well as communicating and delegating more effectively, this can still be challenging.


In doing this self-reflection about my habits, I realized that asking for help is difficult for many people from all walks of life but it can be particularly daunting to those with disabilities. While most people can accomplish regular, daily tasks without help from others, those who use mobility devices like a wheelchair are not always so fortunate.


What if there is a door they need help opening? What if there is an item they can’t reach on a shelf? Unless they obtain assistance in some way, it is going to be difficult for them to accomplish and that can be a helpless feeling or become isolated. If you have a friend or family member in a wheelchair, I’m sure the last thing you want is for them to feel this way so let’s talk about wheelchair etiquette.


Don’t – Do not provide unsolicited help or make assumptions. Some wheelchair users are fiercely independent, and they won’t ask for help unless they absolutely need it. That’s why you should never just start spontaneously helping someone in a wheelchair – ask first, while making eye contact. You could easily offend them, or they could be put off by your invasion of their personal space. A wheelchair is considered an extension of a person so could you imagine someone coming up to you to randomly push your body, hold your hand, or rest their foot on your lap? Therefore, do not touch the wheelchair unless permitted, and certainly don’t treat it like a piece of furniture – it is much more than that to the user, and assuming they need help takes away from their independence.


Don’t – Do not offer help repeatedly. If a task may take them longer, their independence is important to respect and something they may fight to preserve every day.

Don’t – Do not act like a savior for helping – that’s ablest behavior. You don’t get a pat on the back for being a decent or kind human.


Don’t – Do not ignore the person struggling or ignore their disability. There are gentle ways to handle this.


Don’t – Do not stare or ask questions you wouldn’t normally ask a person not using a wheelchair. These are important conversations to have with children or audiences where there may be there are misconceptions and confusion.


Don’t – Do not be reckless with the wheelchair. The chair may be durable at this time, but the person sitting in it may be vulnerable. Don’t make sharp turns and do not take a steep slope backwards. Never ask for a ride or allow children to climb on it. A wheelchair is not a toy and everyone should be respectful of that.


Don’t – Do not assume anything. Many well-intentioned people make assumptions about people who use wheelchairs. Never assume that you know a person’s abilities simply because they use a wheelchair. There are many reasons to be using a wheelchair, even in a temporary situation. 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. This also serves as a great opportunity to learn more about that person.


Don’t – Do not assume the person needs assistance all the time. In expanding on the comment above, making the effort to learn how to appropriately interact with someone shows care and consideration. You’ll learn what to do should the circumstance arise, and you may even deepen the relationship because you took an extra step rather than just assuming.


Do – Do treat the person like everyone else rather than speaking directly to a PCA or interpreter. If they have a service animal, be sure to acknowledge the person before the animal. If you’re going to have a conversation with them, have the courtesy to get to eye level if you are able. Take a seat so they do not have to strain their neck to talk to you. Take the time to engage in conversation with the person in the wheelchair rather than literally talking over their head. 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.


Do – Do communicate clearly with the wheelchair user. It’s important that the wheelchair user feels physically comfortable as mentioned above, since being uncomfortable could cause balance issues, slipping and much more. Additionally, you want the user to be relaxed in all situations. Talk with the person using a wheelchair and always ensure they feel comfortable at every stage. And every time you’re going to do something to the wheelchair, such as turn it, tilt it, and so on, communicate it clearly to the user first. You don’t want them to be surprised by a sudden movement.


Do – Do think before you speak and if you are not sure about something, ask. There are respectable ways to go about this. People with disabilities are people, remember that when speaking to them.

Do – Do use common sense and follow laws. The accessible parking spots are created for ease and mobility of people with wheelchairs. Don’t get in the way of that and don’t be that person – the fine is hefty and the embarrassment is hard to carry, too.


Do – Do allow someone using a wheelchair to help you. Sometimes, someone using a wheelchair may offer to help with carrying bags or some other task. If this happens, accept their help just as you would anyone else. Everyone knows their ability best and everyone appreciates the opportunity to help someone.


It’s important to be conscientious about our differences without necessarily treating people differently, which means being compassionate. As a society, we don’t completely understand how to interact with people who look or move differently than we do. Part of that is how we were raised so maybe, as we raise these next generations, instead of telling children simply not to stare at a person with a disability or someone who may be considered different from them, we encourage them to smile or introduce themselves. This will create a future of equity, diversity, and inclusion. As adults, our job is to be aware of our own ablest mentalities and behaviors and to do our best to educate ourselves and those closest to us on how to be allies for individuals with disabilities. Because “helping” those with disabilities isn’t just about reaching the cereal on the top shelf, or opening doors; it’s about shaping our world into a friendlier and more accessible place.


Excerpts and ideas taken from stronggo.com, pantsupeasy.com, and travelwheelchair.net. Image provided by pexels.com

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