If you have just met a new friend or co-worker who uses a wheelchair, do you know the appropriate etiquette for interacting with them?
People use wheelchairs for a wide variety of reasons, including muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, polio, etc. There are all different shapes and sizes of wheelchairs from hand-operated ones to motorized ones. Using a wheelchair allows a person with these mobility barriers to get around by themselves and have a higher amount of independence.
Your new friend in a wheelchair will probably be annoyed if you commit some of these common wheelchair etiquette mistakes:
Taking Control of Their Chair
It is incredibly rude to grab hold of someone’s wheelchair and move them without asking permission. Can you imagine how you would feel if you were in someone’s way, and they picked you up off the ground and put you down somewhere else? You would probably feel like your personal space had been violated!
A wheelchair is part of a person’s body space, and taking control of it without asking will make them very uncomfortable, so ask them politely to move out of your way instead.
If you are having more than a five-minute conversation with someone in a wheelchair, it can sometimes be uncomfortable for them to have to keep looking up to make eye contact with you. If at all possible, pull up a chair beside them so that you can talk to them on the same eye level. It will be more comfortable for both of you.
Remember, the most respectful way to interact with a disabled person is to ignore the disability and talk to the person instead. If they have a caretaker with them, never speak to their caretaker about them when they are sitting right there. It is very frustrating to have people talking about you over your head while ignoring you!
Figures of Speech
When speaking to their disabled friends in wheelchairs, some people catch themselves using figures of speech such as “I must be running along” and then awkwardly apologize for bringing up running or walking.
Don’t do this. The person knows that this is simply an expression that is part of every language, and they are not offended by it. By apologizing for it, you have made the situation more uncomfortable than it needed to be by drawing the attention back to their disability.
These are just a few essential things to remember when you are interacting with people who use wheelchairs.
Do you know the proper etiquette for interacting with someone in a wheelchair?