- So, the other day I was sitting in the Student Center of my college
- Just chilling out on my laptop
- In fact, I was probably on tumblr.
- Anyway, a random professor comes up to me.
- Professor: I know a lot of people in wheelchairs. Maybe you know some of them?
- And immediately, I freeze
- Because, obviously I'm in a wheelchair
- But I never flaunt my disability
- I usually try to show others that I'm just the same as them, and try to blend in
- And everyone in the Student Center is staring
- And it's incredibly awkward
- So, I held my head up high
- And I Said: What a coincidence! I know a lot of people who can walk! Maybe you know some of them?
- The whole room was silent
- I mean, sheer, deadly, silence
- Nobody moved a muscle
- Then, a student in the corner stood up and began to clap
- Then another student began to clap
- Then another
- And another
- And I received a standing ovation
- No pun intended
How To Talk to People Who Are In Wheelchairs
One of the things I notice when I am in my wheelchair is that many adults have difficulty knowing exactly what to say or how to act with someone who is in a wheelchair. Sometimes I notice inadvertent, side-glances; people who don’t glance directly at me, but will furtively look at me and then look away, as though they’re afraid of being caught staring.
I think that it is important to note that while you may be curious, some good general tips are as follows.
Tip 1. If you are curious and want to look at my wheelchair, please openly look at me, as you would look at any other able-bodied adult, and make eye contact. This is much less hurtful to me than when people pretend to be looking at something else while sneaking side-glances at me and my wheelchair.
I think I know why they do this; it is an ingrained cultural concept that we should not stare at others who are different. However, doing that kind of thing makes me feel like I am some kind of bizarre person, and increases my feeling of isolation.
People often have a natural desire to look at a wheelchair. It’s ok. A wheelchair is something out of the ordinary. However, it is immensely more painful to me if you give me a couple of sidelong glances and then move on without ever saying hello or acknowledging me. You don’t have to talk to me, but please do nod or smile as you would do to a normal person. It restores my feeling of humanity and equality.
Tip 2. If you have questions, ask, in a polite and respectful manner. I am usually very happy to answer questions about my condition or why I am in a wheelchair. I know I make people curious, especially because I am young. Many people don’t understand my disease, spina bifida, and want to know why I am in a wheelchair, especially when I don’t have a visible cast or broken bone. Politely asking is not offensive; ignoring and staring covertly is.
Tip 3. If you have small children, and they ask you something like, “Mamma, why is that boy in a wheelchair?” The best way to respond is probably to say something like “I don’t know; let’s ask him.” I have heard parents hush children up with a “Stop it, that question isn’t appropriate,” or they may say, “We don’t ask people those sorts of things. It’s rude.” Children have a natural curiosity about the way the world functions. They want to know. And by allowing them to approach and talk to me, you are increasing their tolerance and acceptance for people with disabilities. Plus, the majority of people in wheelchairs are happy to interact with curious children. They ask the questions that the majority of adults are thinking, but are afraid to ask.
Tip 4. When talking to me, don’t feel you need to kneel down or get on my level to talk with me face to face. While I understand that some people do that, thinking that it allows them to better make eye contact with me, but on the whole, it comes across as condescending. I know I’m in a wheelchair and I know that you’re going to be looking down at me. Just talk to me as you’d talk to me if I stood up and was facing you. At the same time, don’t hug a wheelchair user if you’re just meeting them for the same time, unless you would hug a casual acquaintance in the same situation; make sure to treat those in a wheelchair with the same respect for physical distance you’d treat those who were able bodied.
Tip 5. Offering help to a wheelchair user in obvious distress is ok. For example, yesterday my sports wheelchair went slightly off the road and got stuck in a patch of mud; I couldn’t get it out of the mud without someone’s help. Sometimes people walk on by, and look sympathetic, but aren’t sure what to say for fear of offense. A kind, “can I help you?” or “Can I be of any assistance?” can sometimes be greatly appreciated. At the same time, if the wheelchair user says ‘no, I’m fine,” it’s best to respect his/her preference.
Tip 6. Not everyone in a wheelchair is paralyzed. But people usually assume that is why you would use one. Illness and frailty often make wheelchair use necessary, and it can be just as necessary as for those who cannot move their limbs at all. The reason I use a wheelchair is because of I was born with Spina Bifida, which is a spinal disease.
Tip 7. When someone in a wheelchair asks you a question or addresses you in any way, look at him or her directly when you reply. NOT the person pushing the chair. You would be surprised how many people do this. I can’t express how rude it is.
- Able-bodied person: So this guy totally kept staring at me.
- Others: How fuckin' rude.
- Person with a disability: So this guy totally kept staring at me.
- Others: Oh God! So even LOOKING at you is now a crime? You are so over-sensitive and hostile! People are just curious and you're being a whiny douchebag about it!