5.9
October 5, 2017

15 Things We all Must Know about People in Wheelchairs.

For all us able-bodied (read: walking around on two legs) folk, this listicle is for us.

Okay, here’s the deal.

Thanks to one college party, MySpace (judge, if you must), and the bluest eyes I have ever been seduced by, I went off and managed to fall in love with a man who happens to be paralyzed.

Yup, he was in a wheelchair.

I had so many questions, but I didn’t ask for fear of embarrassing him or myself. Due to not asking the hot guy in a wheelchair what the proper rules-of-the-road were for interacting with him, there was a handful of funny but mostly awkward moments.

For example, while he was laying on his bed some months later, I jumped into his manual wheelchair to pull off what I envisioned to be an awesome wheelie. He didn’t have the chance to warn me not to lean back in it to prevent tumbling over backward. So, with my feet flailing in the air, my head bounced off the hard wood floor. And because I’m a very fair-skinned red head, I couldn’t even play it off as though I wasn’t embarrassed because I was beet red as I scraped my graceful self off his floor.

So this list is to prevent you from that same mishap should you find yourself in the bedroom of a hot guy in a wheelchair. But mostly, this list is for any and everyone who should encounter a person who uses a wheelchair.

There are approximately 200,000 people living with spinal cord injuries (SCI) in the United States. Every 48 seconds in our country, a person becomes paralyzed. So, I’m gonna give you some tips on how to interact with a wheelchair user:

1. Don’t pat them on the head. I know it can be awkward trying to figure out how to greet them if they have no arm or hand movement, but trust me, no grown man or woman wants to be patted on the head.

2. Shaking hands. If they can move their arms and not their hands, when they extend their hand to shake your hand, shake it like you would any other person. Doing the “daps” thing is okay to okay-ish. It depends on the person. An actual handshake is always fine. The person you are greeting may not be able to open their hand, but you can still shake it normally.

3. Talk to them. Make eye contact. If at a restaurant, for example, if you want to know if a particular seating area is okay for them, ask them, not their companion.

4. Treat the chair as part of their body. You would not pile stuff on an able-bodied person’s lap without asking first; don’t do it to a wheelchair user. As tempting as it may be, don’t hop on the back of their chair for a ride when they are moving unless invited to do so. If they are not using their chair, don’t just hop in it and play around without permission. Number one, you might just flip over and hurt and embarrass yourself. Number two, it’s not a toy. And it’s not a ride. It’s waaaaay more than that. And they cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to about $70,000. Respect it and the owner of it.

5. It’s always okay to ask if you can help. If you sense they may need help, ask them if you can. Depending on the situation, they may decline. But they will almost always appreciate the offer. If they decline, accept that. Sometimes your helping can do more harm than good; let them be the judge of that.

6. Accept that they may not go to some events or places. If they feel like they are going to cause a disruption, need more help than they are comfortable with receiving, or something else, we should respect that. Even if you’re willing to help, that still doesn’t make it comfortable for them at times. On the flipside, don’t assume they don’t want to be included in things either. Just ask.

7. Do not judge them for being late. There’s so much that goes on with paralysis that you can’t even imagine, so being late even with the best planning and with ample hands-on assistance happens quite a bit.

8. Quit telling them they are an inspiration. Not every disabled person wants to be your inspiration. And sometimes it comes off like, “Damn, your life must be sh*tty, but you go girl, look at you grocery shopping anyway.”

9. Did you know that most paralyzed people actually have some feeling? It may feel to them like they are wrapped in layers of duct tape, or it may only be burning pain, or it may just be pressure they can sense, but they may actually have varying degrees of sensation in various places. Or, maybe not.

10. Don’t assume that they can or can’t do something. Asking is perfectly fine.

11. The person who spends the most time helping them needs more of a break than you could ever imagine. Don’t assume otherwise. Offer help if you feel moved to do so. And usually, it’s more effective to offer a specific type of help rather than just asking if you can help. For example, offer to take out the trash, offer to help transfer the person in the wheelchair to the couch for them, and so on. That extra pair of hands and brief break are appreciated more than you know. Sometimes they just want to be the spouse, significant other, or parent.

12. This is the time to show up and be a friend. If you ever know of someone who experiences paralysis, keep in mind that this is a very common time for friends and family to desert them. The visits and calls slow and then stop. I have heard this over and over from paralyzed people. Don’t f*cking do that. They are already dealing with enough; the last thing they need is to feel like they have to deal with it alone.

13. Don’t bring up their sex life. Unless it’s a person you would ask otherwise, asking about their sex life is a no go. Just Google it if you really want to know.

14. Don’t park in an accessible spot or the hashmarks next to it. Besides being illegal, unless you’ve experienced it, you really have no idea the trouble this causes someone in a wheelchair. And those hashmarks? They are not for motorcycles. They are for wheelchair ramps, and space for a wheelchair to exit.

15. Save your wheelchair jokes. If they tell them, that’s different. Kinda like how you can talk about your sister but you would beat up anyone else who did. It’s a double standard. We know. It’s allowed.

Bonus: Try to avoid doing sh*t that will result in your own paralysis. Because chances are, you won’t find it very fun if you break your neck or your back. ~

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Author: Gentrie Pool
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman
Social Editor: Catherine Monkman

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Blandine Even Oct 9, 2017 9:14pm

16 - Did you know that most wheelchair users are not paralyzed ? It seems the author doesn't. So please stop assuming wheelchair = paralysis / spinal cord injury. Because there are 100s of different reasons for using a wheelchair, and some wheelchair users can even stand / walk a bit, with or without assistance. Otherwise, as someone who's been using a wheelchair for 5 years, I agree with most of this. Expect the "offer to help transfer the person in the wheelchair to the couch for them", as this could be really dangerous and both the wheelchair user and the person trying to help could get hurt. If you don't know how to transfer this particular person from his/her wheelchair (you really need to be trained for that, and there are different ways to do it depending on the person disability), don't do it !

Shaina Beil Oct 9, 2017 7:23pm

Great! I think it really applies to many situations with people who use wheelchairs, though it's a bit odd that the article seems to be trying to address etiquette for ALL wheelchair users yet only references people with paralysis; whereas, there are LOTS of wheelchair user for lots of different reasons. I do get that you can--and should--only write from the perspective that you're familiar with. Did you know that some people who need a wheelchair sometimes still retain the ability to stand or walk varying distances? For the most part, it's good not to assume anything about anybody and to treat all people with courtesy and respect, including wheelchair users.

Debora Hanvey Oct 7, 2017 1:45pm

this is also excellent advice for friends of those born with conditions like cerebral palsy. my son is a quadriplegic and lives his entire life in a power wheelchair. since his mind works fine, but not his body, dealing with people is sometimes a daunting task. as you said, no adult wants to be patted on the head or talked over as if they are not there. thank you for writing about this.

KM Schen Oct 6, 2017 4:48pm

Thank you for a great list. If I had a dime for everytime someone has tried to help me move after I told them not to I would be a very rich woman!

Dave Mccawley Oct 6, 2017 2:10pm

Divine timing, Santa and his Elves are doing a video transforming a young Lady's wheelchair into Cinderella's Pumpkin carriage for Halloween. Thanks, good article.

Linda Lewis Oct 6, 2017 2:06pm

An excellent article. I live in Halifax, an old city that's gone out of its way to make everything accessible. Since it's also an old naval city, many vets return injured and we see people in wheelchairs often. Our buses are rigged so a ramp can come down and the first chairs in the bus can go up to accommodate people in wheelchairs (as well as people w/ babies in prams or strollers). While waiting for the bus on rainy days, I enjoy talking and listening to people in wheelchairs. Not everyone feels inclined to strike up a conversation, but it seems a valuable outlet for the folks in wheelchairs to be included and listened to. I sense a great deal of loneliness in many.

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Gentrie Pool

Gentrie Pool describes herself as a soul sharing her heart, her life lessons, and a bit of her funny bone time to time. She likes words…a lot. And your actions tell her if yours are true. Oh, and she has a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Science in Communication Studies with an emphasis in Interpersonal. You can connect with Gentrie on Instagram.