There are things to say and not to say to someone using a wheelchair. Unfortunately, in my experience, most people get it wrong. I can’t count the times I’ve been approached by a random stranger in public and told “you better slow down, this is a no speeding zone (hahaha)”, or “look out, woman driver”. It seems like when a wheelchair is present people become so uncomfortable that they lose all sense of ability to act rationally. People have said “you drive that thing really good”. Does that seem strange to anyone? Wouldn’t it seem strange if I came up to a random person and said, “You use your feet to walk really well!” I’ve actually responded to people with that line and they look at me confused and perplexed. They don’t know how to respond to that statement. Neither do I.
A wheelchair is merely a device used to assist people in mobility. It doesn’t change the person in any way. It isn’t something that needs to be constantly commented on. News flash, the person using the wheelchair already knows they are using it! In the very rare instance when I am seen in public without my wheelchair I am never approached by random strangers. I am essentially invisible to others. I still have the same disability, but nobody seems to notice me. Why does the presence of a wheelchair automatically make people nervous?
I assume it’s because people don’t regularly interact with people with disabilities. I wish people would understand that we want to be treated like everyone else regardless if we use a wheelchair or not. You don’t have to run away when you see me coming down the isle at the local supermarket. As you’ve already commented, “I drive it pretty well”, and I won’t run you over. I promise! You don’t have to apologize and jump to the side waiting for me to pass when we are in the same area as if you were in my way. Typically the isles are big enough for us both. Simply treat me as if you would anyone else coming down that particular isle.
There was one occasion when I was approached by someone who commented on my wheelchair and I was not offended. A gentleman stated to me, “That’s really cool that your chair goes up like that. I bet it makes things more accessible.” You see, I have what’s called I-Level on my wheelchair allowing me to raise my chair up to, you guessed it, eye level with standing individuals. It is incredibly convenient when shopping with my husband because I can talk to him easier and reach things I wouldn’t normally be able to reach. I am blessed to be able to have it on my chair.
That statement was not condescending in any way. It didn’t put me down, or make me feel as if I was being treated differently than anyone else. He merely made an observation about something not too common on wheelchairs in a tasteful way. I have no problem with that statement, and I welcome such interactions. People often take pride in their wheelchairs. They are customizable to color, style, and accessories. Commenting on the awesome color of a wheelchair, or a cool feature of said wheelchair is a nice way of validating the personal style of the individual using the device.
If you don’t feel comfortable commenting on someone’s wheelchair, but absolutely feel the need to say something to ease your own uncomfortable feelings in the moment, you can always compliment someone on their outfit, hair style, or other features. We are people beyond the wheelchair, and we like compliments too.
If you feel uncomfortable, statements such as “what happened to you”, “what’s wrong with you” or “how did you end up in that thing” are unacceptable and demeaning. By making such statements, you are assuming we are less of a person because something is wrong with us, or that something must have happened to us for us to be using a wheelchair at such a young age. There are multiple disabilities that are present at birth which require the use of a mobility aid. By assuming something bad happened to someone using a wheelchair or other mobility aid you are taking away their identity. Many people with congenital disabilities are proud of who they are with their disability, and by assuming that something bad happened to them you are saying their birth was a mistake.
Please remember that people using wheelchairs are not “speed racers”, and do not want to race you. Just as someone wearing tennis shoes is not always looking for a tennis match. People wearing yoga pants aren’t always on their way to yoga. A wheelchair is a mobility aid and not a “fun” racing device. Sure it’s fun to race other wheelchairs sometimes, but that is not why I have the chair. Furthermore, just because I am a woman using an electric wheelchair does not mean you need to comment on my gender or my ability to drive.
People with disabilities have to overcome adversity every day. Whether it is a physical obstacle limiting our access to public places, or a mental perception that we are capable of less than what we are. We survive and continue to thrive despite our many obstacles. Please don’t ruin our day by adding to our plethora of barriers, and treat us like the humans we are. Thank you.