5 Ways Able-Bodied People Can Do Better By People in Wheelchairs

A child in a wheelchair is smiling

Source: iStock

Many are interested in improving the lives of people with disabilities, but few of these discussions focus on people in wheelchairs.

Wheelchairs have become the most commonly recognized symbol of (physical) disability, but little attention is paid to whether or not the people in them are safe, comfortable, and treated as equals.

As a wheelchair user, I think this conversation is long overdue. Able-bodied people need to know how to interact with us and respect us, while both acknowledging and moving past our physical apparatus.

But it can be hard to know where to start.

So here are a few easy ways that able-bodied people can be better allies to people in wheelchairs.

1. Be Mindful of Us in Public Spaces

Having awareness of wheelchair users in public encompasses more than ensuring ramp access to buildings – although, yes, that’s important, too.

Starting with the basics, people in wheelchairs are sitting and therefore lower to the ground than most standing adults. This means that people are less likely to see us when they’re walking, especially if they’re distracted by texting or talking to a friend, which can lead to collisions.

Take it from me – you definitely don’t want your foot run over, particularly if the wheelchair in question is motorized! It’s painful and awkward for all involved. I’ve even heard stories of people having their toes broken from being run over by wheelchairs.

Be sure to give wheelchair users a clear path in crowded areas to avoid accidental injury. Besides being safety conscious, it’s the polite thing to do!

Speaking of politeness, I want to talk about elevators and bathrooms. When I wrote one of my first articles on ableism and disability, I wasn’t surprised that the only part that received some pushback was my discussion of elevators and bathrooms. Generally, that’s the accessibility issue that impacts able-bodied people most directly.

You might be saying, “Well, elevators and bathrooms are for everyone! You can’t decide who uses them and who doesn’t!” And I do at least partially agree with that argument.

Elevators and bathrooms are for everyone. Anyone can and should be able to use them regardless of ability status. It usually boils down to a courtesy issue.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been blocked from getting on the elevator because it’s filled with a group of people going up one or two floors. I highly doubt every single one of them was in a rush or incapable of climbing a flight of stairs.

Similarly, able-bodied people just love going to the one handicapped bathroom stall because it gives them more space or privacy or whatever. Never mind the fact that 20 average size stalls are sitting empty.

Of course, if you’re an able-bodied person who actually needs the space, that’s a different story. Most of the time, however, that’s not the case.

Wheelchair users actually need the extra space in the handicapped stall so that we can fit our chairs in and transfer to the toilet more easily. We need the handrails to maintain our balance and assist with movement. It’s not just because we love flaunting special treatment.

(And a side note PSA to all curious couples: Stop using the handicapped stall as a convenient place for sex. There have to be a million other places where you can get the same thrill without being inconsiderate assholes.)

(While I’m at it: Ladies, the handicapped stall is not a place for a cool group hangout. Stop inviting all your friends in to gossip. You can be separated for five minutes – or you can converge elsewhere.)

People try and make excuses for themselves by rattling off a list of exceptions: “But what if I live on the 17th floor? What if I’m about to pee my pants and the handicapped stall is the only one available?”

All I can say is that it’s not about justifying your actions.

It’s about recognizing that some people have a greater need for the resource in question, and you shouldn’t take advantage of resources specifically intended for wheelchair users.

Just be mindful and use your common sense!

2. Don’t Comment on Our Chairs

If I had a dime for every time someone said “I wish I had one of those!” or “Can I race you?” as a reaction to my chair, I would’ve had enough money to pay my own way through college.

I get what you’re doing, and I appreciate the sentiment. You’re trying to make us feel special for being different and having a chair. You’re trying to make us feel good by pretending to be playfully envious of us.

You might have good intentions, but your statements can have unfortunate consequences.

When you see or meet someone in a wheelchair and the first thing out of your mouth is wheelchair-related, you’re effectively communicating that the wheelchair is the first and probably only thing you notice about them.

Sure, you might get away with it if you’re talking to a little kid, but depending on the context, it can be highly inappropriate. Imagine unknowingly introducing yourself to a coworker or your new boss by shouting “Don’t get a speeding ticket in that thing!”

It’s incredibly annoying to have every aspect of our appearance and personality superseded by the visual spectacle of our wheelchairs. It’s downright insulting when people act as though wheelchairs are merely a cool accessory to indulge your fantasies of not moving or exercising.

You can’t cherry pick disabilities that way.

We know that we’re in a wheelchair. We know that you can see that we’re in a wheelchair. Don’t make situations weird and uncomfortable by going out of your way to point it out.

3. Talk to Us

Seems simple enough, right?

And yet, you’d be surprised at how seemingly hard this for folks.

People in wheelchairs are just as social as everyone else! We love talking and laughing and teasing and flirting! However, our chairs tend to serve as a barrier to genuine and fulfilling interaction.

I have developed several theories over the years as to why able-bodied people are still reluctant to talk to wheelchair users. One is, again, the height thing. You just don’t see us, and we can’t always make eye contact easily so you don’t talk to us.

Another would be the awkwardness of the social stigma: You don’t want to draw attention to yourself by going out of your way to talk to the person in a wheelchair. This isn’t necessarily shallow or malicious; I think a lot of people worry that they wouldn’t be able to relate to us.

The third reason is infantilism and the assumption that people with disabilities are mentally younger than their biological age (more on that below). Able-bodied people often assume that people in wheelchairs are mentally challenged and therefore have questionable communication skills.

Whatever your hesitation, please talk to us anyway!

So many of us are unfairly starved for interaction because see the chair and write us off without giving us a chance. You never know – those silly stereotypes might be keeping you from having a great connection!

And hey, that’s not to say that you should feel pressure to get along with everyone who is in a wheelchair. Sometimes people’s personalities just don’t click. But the point is, you’ll never know until you try.

4. Engage Us in Age-Appropriate Ways

Growing up, I went to a summer camp for disabled kids. My first year at the program was when I was eight years old. The activities were probably slightly below my age bracket, but I didn’t think anything of it.

By the time I was well into my teens, I was struggling not to roll my eyes at adults who were still having us paint and do sing-alongs like preschoolers. Our counselors knew better and would try not to snicker as the activity supervisors babbled and cooed at a group of 16 to 18-year-olds.

Fast forward to the present, and I’m still dealing with high-pitched baby talk as a nearly 24-year-old college graduate.

Random strangers just love to tell me how adorable I am and are fascinated that I would even attempt college. Sometimes people even ask my mom whether or not I’m able to speak – while I’m standing beside her!

When people see the wheelchair, they automatically assume some sort of cognitive delay or impairment. It’s important to note that some wheelchair users do have mental disabilities, and that doesn’t make them any less deserving of love or respect.

Ultimately though, able-bodied people have to realize that you can’t assess someone’s mental capabilities based on the presence of a wheelchair or other visible disability.

If you’re unsure of how to interact with a wheelchair user, try talking to them first! You should be able to get a better feel of their personality and how to best engage them within a few minutes.

The reason my camp counselors were laughing at the activity advisors was because they had actually taken the time to get to know us, whereas the activity advisors were operating under a snap judgment that made them seem ignorant and foolish.

Just because someone is in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you have to treat them like a small child.

5. Don’t Make Assumptions About Our Lives Based on Our Chairs

You’ve probably caught on by now, but people make all kinds of ridiculous assumptions based on our wheelchairs.

If you’re handicapped, you must be naïve and childlike. You must not work. You must be celibate since you can’t have sex. You must be so inspirational!

Some of those stereotypes are true for some wheelchair users, and some of them aren’t. The bottom line is that the assumption in itself is hurtful.

Most of those stereotypes are associated with a lack of quality of life, which contributes heavily to the dehumanization of people in wheelchairs because the assumption is that their lives just aren’t worth it.

Even if you mean it as a compliment (i.e. “I could never live the way you do!”), what you’re actually saying is that you’d rather be dead than wheelchair-bound because you couldn’t imagine dealing with the extra complication. That never feels good.

Also, don’t do things like fussing over someone for being brave or being amazed that they’re actually able to work and earn an income. We are not dogs. We don’t need you to pat us on the head.

We might be wheelchair-bound, but that’s not an indicator that our existence is bleak and miserable. Lots of people are dealing with circumstances way worse than being handicapped. And honestly, I shouldn’t even have to say that because life shouldn’t be a pity competition!

Stop acting like the only way you can understand wheelchair users is through patronizing and pity. We are individuals who have complex backgrounds and diverse personalities.

Look beyond the wheels and start getting to know us as people. We shouldn’t be reduced to our means of mobility and transportation.

TL;DR: Never forget that people in wheelchairs are always people first.

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Erin Tatum is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. She’s a feminist, queer theory lover, and television enthusiast living in Pennsylvania. She is particularly interested in examining the representation of marginalized identities in media. In addition to Everyday Feminism, she’s also a weekly contributor to B*tch Flicks. Follow her on Twitter @ErinTatum91