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How Not to be Awkward: Tips From a Wheelchair User

Author's Note: This was written for a class approximately 2.5 years before it was posted to this site. Though my style and references may have changed in the intervening years, my point and perspective remain the same. I keep it up in part for this reason, but also to demonstrate how far my writing has come since then. Enjoy the piece that inspired this site!

Before we begin, I’d like to point something out, and it’s pretty important: these tips are just general, rule of thumb guidelines, and different people have different preferences— for instance, some people prefer that you always use “person first” language, (“person with a disability” as opposed to “disabled person”) where I don’t really care either wayto me, that’s like “blond person” versus “person with blond hair”—it doesn’t really make a difference. Anyway, the point is, these are not absolute rules, and every wheelchair user has different opinions. (Pro tip: don’t say wheelchair bound. We aren’t restricted by our chairs; they help us move, and function, and live our lives. Thank you in advance.)

Tip #1: Don’ t Assume

I understand that people generally have certain ideas about wheelchairs and their users, even if I don’t know where they come from. Assumptions aren’t really helpful here, though. They aren’t really based on anything concrete, a lot of times just vague ideas or stereotypes, and they can be misinformed, or lead you to misinform others, no matter how well intentioned you are. Past experiences may not apply in every situation, since every person is different. Each of the following is its own separate, frustrating assumption, so they are listed and explained separately.

Don’t assume I have diminished mental capacitythe fact that I am sitting down really doesn’t tell you anything about my mind. It tells you that doing so, in all likelihood, makes me more independent, and my life easier.

Don’t assume my diagnosis, or that because you know and/or are related to someone who uses a wheelchair, that you know everything about me. There are tons of different reasons a person could use a wheelchair, including but not limited toparalysis, chronic pain, or cerebral palsyand every diagnosis can vary from person to person in severity or impact. I, like you, am a complex human being, with interests and hobbies, the majority of which are entirely unrelated to my wheelchair. Seriously, the fact that I like BBC Sherlock has nothing to do with my disability; it’s a good show.

Please do not assume that I need helpask. I cannot stress this enough: ask me before you help me, and if I say no, leave it. Even if I am obviously struggling to open a door, please refrain from abruptly pulling it open, and ask if I want you to hold it. This gives me time to reorient myself if I need to, and is just common courtesy. (Tip #4 has more on the specific subject of doors.)

Lastly in this category, don’t assume I’m unhappy. Being in a wheelchair doesn’t make life inherently and unchangingly miserable for all time; sure, I have struggles, but there are things I enjoy, too. Like waffles, for instance, or hanging out with my friends. Assuming I’m unhappy because I’m not able-bodied ignores all of the fun, cool things I like to do, and am able to do– not in spite of my chair, but sometimes because of it, and other times with my disability being entirely irrelevant. It also implies that being able-bodied (or as close as you can get) is the end-goal, which it’s not. The end-goal is for your body to be able to do what you want it to do, whether you are disabled or not.

Tip #2: Relax

When you come up to talk to me, relax. I’ve encountered a lot of people who want to ask me a question, or just talk to me, but they get super tense. I can understand if you’re trying to come up with a good phrasing and it feels really awkward, but you being tense makes the whole situation more awkward, for a few reasons. It shows that you are visibly uncomfortable with this situation, presumably with something about me, and that makes me uncomfortable. I can’t do anything to put you at ease, nor can I answer your question, because you haven’t asked it yet—we’ve reached a stalemate, and it’s your move. So relax, and treat it like any other conversation. If your question is poorly worded, (but reasonable) I’ll still answer it, and maybe suggest better phrasing (for example, “What’s wrong with you?”you most likely meant, “Do you mind if I ask why you’re in a wheelchair?”); if it’s too invasive, I’ll let you know. I understand that it is sometimes hard to know where the line is, but please consider your choice of words.

Tip #3: Manners Matter (alternately, “Please, for the love of chocolate milk, DO NOT DO THESE THINGS”)

I know that earlier I said that these were not hard and fast rules, but the things in this category get on the nerves of every chair user I know. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, never, ever, under any circumstances, use “the puppy dog voice”. You know what this isit’s the gross, sickly sweet, patronizing voice reserved for baby bunnies and cute dogs you see at the shelter. We are people, and it is very degrading to be spoken to in the same manner as tiny, helpless animals in need of protection.

In a similar vein, please talk to me, not who I am with. Doing otherwise implies (or tells me that you have flat out assumed) that I am incapable somehow, of conversing with you, or that the other person is weirdly more knowledgeable on my thoughts and opinions than me, the person to whom those thoughts and opinions belong.

Third, please don’t touch my chair. Don’t push it without asking, whether to help me get to my destinationsee Tip #1or to remove me from your path. In the first case, ask if I would like help, (this is good phrasing, because if you ask me if I need help, I will most likely say no, I can do it myself. If you ask me if I’d like help, you’re more likely to get a yes, because I, too, like to make my life easier.) in the second, politely ask me to move, like you would with any other person. Also, please do not lean on my chair. It is, for all intents and purposes, me. Not all of me, but on my person, like a bag, or a pair of shoes. I could move at any time, sending you crashing to the floor. And I am not obligated to warn you, due to the fact that I am not a piece of furniture.

Tip #4: Be Aware

Okay, these are just some things to be conscious of. People do these things a lot of times without thinking, and they aren’t necessarily meaning to be inconsiderate, but they get some silent fuming from those of us in chairs.

First, be aware of staring, and that it gives a bad impression. Even if you are gazing at my chair with deep admiration, and thinking about how cool it is, I don’t know that; you could be thinking any number of things about me. Staring, no matter the thoughts behind it, tends to come off as rude, and it’s better not to do it.

Next on the list, please be aware of your backpack, purse, and/or arms. This is one that people really don’t think aboutbags and backpacks, which would hit most people in the side or the shoulder, are level with my face. All I ask is that you watch where these things are going when you take them out of your locker and put them over your shoulder. I am not a fan of being whacked in the face (not by your arm, not by your purse, and certainly not by a bag full of textbooks).

When it comes to elevators and accessible bathroom stalls, please consider convenience for you versus necessity for me. If you can take the stairs, don’t use the elevator just for gigglesI have places to be, and that elevator is my only way of getting there. You have stairs at your disposal, which are in some cases faster and closer to your destination. Similarly, in public restrooms, there is one accessible stall, and about six standard ones. Unless there are no other stalls open, or you have a baby with you, or maybe if you need to change clothes, please do not use the bigger one. I need that turning radius for my wheelchair, and it’s super frustrating when I have to wait for someone who doesn’t need that space, to finish. There is no reason to just hog that stall, either, even if it was your only option.

We’re back to the advice about doors, and there are two main things to know: doors are heavy; I don’t appreciate them being shut on me, and if you choose to hold the door, (You’re so nice, thank you!) please do so by pulling it out towards you, not pushing it open away from you. The former technique has the advantage of providing a wider opening, since the door isn’t bobbling back and forth as you try to hold it while staying off to the side, and it is also favorable to both of us due to the fact that it doesn’t place you directly in my path.

These four tips will hopefully help you to feel more comfortable around wheelchair users, and result in less awkward encounters. (Less awkward is good for all involved.) These suggestions are a great starting point; if you are interested in the related topic of being “An Inspiration To Us All”, I highly recommend Stella Young’s TED Talk on disability and inspiration. She illustrates her points brilliantly, and her talk is well worth ten minutes of your time.

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