Friday, September 3, 2010

The SmartAss Guide to Wheelchair Etiquette


Alright, this is going to consist of one solid concept and then variations on what to do with that concept. With the amount of faux paux, ignorance, and just straight up bad behavior I have seen myself, I feel like this is necessary. I do not believe that I should have to add a sarcasm warning to something with the words "smart ass" in the title, but there you go.

If you find yourself sputtering “But, but…” or getting angry or defensive – well, you will have to deal with that. There are guides out there that are more politic, nice, and cater to the discomfort that the able-bodied or temporarily able-bodied feel in these situations. I do not give a damn about that. You have been warned!

Main concept: a person in a wheelchair is just that – a person in a chair. Person. Chair. That is it. The corollary to that is this: do not do ridiculous shit. If you remember nothing else, remember this, and it should guide you well.

Editorial note: I often just say "wheelchair" as that is the scope of my experience. As far as I know, all this also applies to the users of scooters and power chairs. If I am mistaken, please let me know in the comments and I will happily make appropriate changes.

Now let’s talk about how that plays out in real life.

Do not touch the damn chair! I do not know what kind of swoon overcomes the temporarily able-bodied, but they seem to forget everything they have learned about behaving in public when they come in contact with a person in a wheelchair. Do not touch the chair. Is it normally okay to mess with other people’s things without asking? No? Well, that is settled then. It is not your prop, leaning spot, or fucking toy. It is a tool, and part of a person’s personal space.

Do not touch the wheelchair user! For pete’s sake, if you would not normally casually touch a person, you do not get the right to do so when they sit down. It is okay to shake hands, the user of the chair will let you know if they do not want to or not able to do so. And I swear, if you pat me on the head, you may pull back a stump.

If the user of the wheelchair is in the way, politely ask them to move – like you would any other person. See, we are still well within the “just a person in a chair” concept. If you would not say it to a temporarily able-bodied person, then do not say it to a person in a wheelchair! Do not bump around the user, or act like they are not there.

Do not do ridiculous shit. Do not make snide comments about how it must be nice to sit around all day or anything like that. If you think that it is nice to have every place you go smelling like ass, then you can have it. Do not assume that using a wheelchair equals some kind of tragedy, and for pete’s sake do not talk about how you “would rather die than live like that.” That just makes you look like an ass. Do you lament the use of eyeglasses? -- alright then, same general concept. A wheelchair is a tool to use to navigate the world, sometimes a person's only key to that world.

If you are going to have a conversation with a wheelchair user, then bring yourself to eye level. Have a seat, whatever. If the user has to look up at you, then they are going to get a stiff neck if that goes on very long, and may stop looking at you. This rule may not apply in all situations; keep in mind that some folks are not going to make eye contact anyway for a number of reasons.

Unless a site is verified as handicapped accessible, it probably is not. Do not assume that the ADA (I am US-centric) had a magic wand and made the world a happy fun place for all. It did not. Some things are obvious: stairs, narrow hallways, steep ramps. Some things are not so obvious: gravel, thick carpets, chunky room transitions. Hills suck (I am looking at you, Dayton, OH). If you are arranging an event, take a look at the site from a the perspective of someone that uses a chair/scooter. Hell, ask someone that uses a chair or scooter to go there with you and confirm.

If a wheelchair user looks like they may need help, ask. Do not get all huffy if they do not seek, want, or require your help. Each person best knows their own abilities, and wheelchair users are no exception. They may not need your help, they may not know or trust you. None of this is any reason to make your able-bodied outrage face about it.

Speaking of help, if you do end up pushing someone’s wheelchair, do so with care. It is not a toy, and you are supposed to be helping the person in it. Pay attention, and try to extend your spatial awareness around the chair. Otherwise, you end up bumping into things, and this can be physically harmful. You also need to exercise an awareness of the person in the chair and where they want to go. You have been granted a great amount of trust, do not abuse it. If you cannot do these things, do not offer to help, because you will not be helping.

Do not worry about your kids. They are going to ask, and that is totally okay. What is not okay is rudeness. Do not do it, and do not let your kids be rude. The person in the chair will set the limits for what they will and will not discuss with your kids.

The use of a wheelchair does not mean that a person’s legs are useless. There are many reasons to use a wheelchair: fatigue, balance, physiological malfunction, dizziness, to name just a few. You do not get to make your shocked face when someone gets out of their chair. Speaking of transfers, do not ever move the chair away from the user without permission.

Guide animals, not so much with the touching them. They are working, people. If you simply can not resist, then ask first, and politely accept the answer, even when you do not like it. I do not care if you are a “dog person” or whatever; it is not your place to decide. I do not have a guide animal, so this is more of a general PSA than my personal experience.

*"The reason why people aren't supposed to pet a working dog is because their rewards are generally associated with when they work as opposed to randomness. They get praise and treats for alerting their companions to important sounds (i.e., in my case; for people with hearing difficulties), doing physical tasks (for a person using a wheelchair), etc. If too many people pet the dog guide, s/he will not work. I find that explaining this to people makes a world of difference." (bastetschylde)

*"I also use the term dog guide as I have learned from my school that it's much more empowering and lends independence to the companion than guide dog does." (bastetschylde)

*"With service not assume the person with one is blind or is training them. There's a lot of those "invisible disabilities" out there and no, it's not your business what the disability is. You do not get to judge if someone needs a service animal or not, so keep your comments to yourself." (Shiny)

Using a wheelchair can be hard work. So, if you are accompanying a wheelchair user, keep this in mind. During long stretches of movement (like mall walkways, hotel hallways, etc...) ask if the user would like to take a break. Look for signs of fatigue. Bonus points for hunting down restrooms so they are easier to get to when needed.

Although it should not need to be said: treat the user of the wheelchair as a person. Talk to them if you want or need to, not their partner, aid, chair pusher unless you mean to talk to their partner, aid, chair pusher.  I have taken to carrying my cane, even when I know I will not use it, expressly for physically prodding people that talk to me through my husband, even though I am right there, but in my wheelchair (or at least entertaining myself with the possibility).

*Do not treat the wheelchair user as a child! (Vargr)

My Awkward Moments series will almost exclusively be about people screwing up the above ideas.

One last time: a wheelchair user is simply a person in a chair. Person. Chair. Easy.




Got a tip to add? Go ahead, that is what comments are for! Speaking of, I reserve the ability to return and edit this post accordingly with the brilliant additions of my suave readership (will ask first), and whatever else may come to mind, or reveals itself in my travels.

Edit (September 4, 2010 3:20pm): I have edited this post to include suggestions from the comments, and I am incredibly grateful for them!  Where I made mistakes (regarding dog guides/service animals) I left my mistakes intact and then quoted the correction. This is to show that I am grateful for the help, but I will not pretend that I did not screw up. I own that. Thanks again for reading, and for lending a hand!