Can you hear the sound of my eyes violently rolling upwards as I get yet another well-meaning but usually tacky and/or condescending comment or question from a perfect stranger? I should be happy that people feel comfortable enough to approach me and interact when I’m out and about. When I’m traveling, I’m always happy to make new acquaintances and have a good laugh, and I’ll always respond to even the most insulting of statements with a smile. As a preventative measure for the able-bodied folks out there, here’s my top 10 list of things not to say to a wheelchair user.
1. I HOPE YOU HAVE A LICENSE FOR THAT THING! I understand. You’re trying to break the ice with a funny comment. Or you’re trying to flirt with me. Either way, this falls into the “If I had a nickel…” category. Sorry, but you’re not breaking any new ground here.
2. YOU SHOULD REALLY GET A HORN. Technically, my power wheelchair and scooter both have one, but they’re woefully inadequate for anything other than making children giggle. I could get a loud horn, but to what end? So everyone in the area can now start staring at me? Thanks, I get plenty of that without a noisemaker. I achieve much more–and polite–success with a firm Excuse me, please!
3. CAN I GET A RIDE? As a single woman, I can’t escape the double meaning of this question that always comes from men. I’m generally hard to offend, but it’s tough to not interpret this question as sexist, and definitely not amusing. It’s also tough to envision a scenario involving any mix of gender identities where this is appropriate. So no, you most certainly may not.
4. SO WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU? Some wheelchair users may get this question more than others. I have multiple sclerosis (MS), I’m 43 years old, I’m thin, and other than not being able to walk I look very healthy. Usually people assume I’ve had some kind of surgery, so it’s an awkward moment when I say I have MS. To avoid the awkward replies of Oh, I’m so sorry!, I usually tell people I got shot by a drug smuggler just north of Nogales when I was working with the Border Patrol in Arizona. Basically, it’s generally not your concern if you’re a complete stranger, and if you do ask, be prepared to respond to the answer in a way that doesn’t make things awkward.
5. YOU’RE SO INSPIRING! I’m actually ambivalent about this one. If the life I live inspires others to escape their comfort zone, challenge themselves, or get out and travel more, then I’m happy. But if you’re inspired by the sheer fact I work, or spend time with friends, or do my own laundry–essentially daily tasks any able-bodied person can do–then it makes me wonder what the big deal is. I’d rather inspire someone in spite of my disability rather than solely because of it.
6. HERE…LET ME HELP YOU. Stop. Seriously, don’t move. It’s very presumptuous to assume a person in a wheelchair automatically needs help, and more so to think you know exactly how to help them. And definitely don’t touch or grab a wheelchair user in the process of transferring from one spot to another. We know our bodies better than anyone and need precise grip and balance to move ourselves. Just one well-intentioned nudge can cause us to slip, fall, or get hurt. Please just ask us if we need help, and let us know you’re there if we need you.
7. I’M SO SORRY… For what? Our disease or accident or other cause of disability isn’t your fault. And the last thing we want is anyone’s pity. Many of us in chairs lead happier and more fulfilling lives than people who can walk and run and jump. Personally, I’m having one of the best years of my life, and even if I weren’t, there’s a good chance it has nothing to do with the fact I can’t walk.
8. CAN YOU DATE/KISS/DO “IT”? I would love to think people would know to refrain from asking such incredibly personal questions of a person in a wheelchair since they likely wouldn’t ask an able-bodied person these things. But, you know…humans. I suppose it’s not so obvious to many that people with disabilities have varying levels of sexual function. What those are should be of no concern at all to strangers, and if you have the audacity to ask such a question, be prepared to receive a doozy of an answer.
9. YOU CAN DO IT IF YOU JUST TRY! You would be amazed at the things people in wheelchairs can accomplish. You just need to watch a paralympic athlete do his/her thing! However, we are all “snowflakes,” if you will, when it comes to physical abilities. We may have very strong spirits, but just because we’re comfortable and confident in our own skin doesn’t mean we don’t have limits. It’s okay to work with us as a friend or physical therapist to help us push our physical and psychological limits, but if you don’t know us, please don’t try this.
10. OH MY GOODNESS! YOU [INSERT VERB HERE]??? Work? Travel? Live alone? Go out in public? I do all of these things, and it tends to surprise a lot of people. I have a friend who is a paraplegic and can’t feel a thing from the waist down, and she’s a competitive adaptive water skier. I have another friend in a power wheelchair who goes to bars and clubs, and is a very active dater. I travel around the world, often by myself, and I manage two businesses and a non-profit. Being in a wheelchair may prevent most of us from climbing Mt. Everest, but don’t act surprised that we’re running circles around some of our able-bodied peers.
In summary, the best advice I can give you when interacting with someone in a wheelchair or disability is, for the most part, talk to them like you would an able-bodied person. Basically, treat them with respect, don’t condescend, and don’t assume anything. Let them dictate when the right time is for them to share personal information. There’s a good chance they want you to be educated about their disability, and one way to approach that appropriately is to simply ask if they feel comfortable talking about it. We may not always look or get around like everyone else, but we’re people, too. Treat us as such, and we’ll get along just fine.