Wheelchair Bound

Wheelchair Bound?
By Dr. Nanette Bowles

Dr. Nanette BowlesA dear (and recently passed) friend of mine used to say that the phrase “wheelchair bound” made him wonder if the person was “bound to a place called Wheelchair”.  A person who uses a wheelchair is not “bound” or “confined” but quite the opposite. A wheelchair can provide mobility,
inclusion, independence and freedom.

I don’t think we intentionally offend others but are often ignorant to how to communicate or respond to someone we view as “different”.  First, I’d like to point out that we are all more alike than different. But, to help us all feel more comfortable and connected, here are some etiquette basics:
1.Focus on the person, not their wheelchair or scooter.
Remember, we are all much more than our ‘disability’.  You do not need to stare at the chair or
person but also don’t avoid eye contact. See the person.

2.Don’t assume what a person can or cannot do based on first impressions.  If you see a person step out of their car to get their wheelchair from the back, this does not mean they do not need it.  Many people who use wheelchairs or scooters are able to walk short distances without them.  They still benefit from and have a right to accessible parking, entrances, restrooms, etc.

3.Don’t hang on, lean again or prop your feet up on a person’s wheelchair. A person’s chair or scooter is an extension of themselves so doing so violates their personal space.  If you happen to bump into it, say “excuse me” as you would if you bumped into them personally.

4.Sit down to maintain eye level communication when talking for any length of time
with a person who uses a wheelchair or scooter. This helps reduce potential strain on their neck and makes the conversation more natural.

5.Speak directly to the person, not someone with them or nearby. I’m amazed at how
often this happens.  Also, if you are with a person with a disability, let them speak for themselves.  IF they need assistance, they will ask you.

6.Don’t pat a person on the head or use other demeaning gestures.  You wouldn’t want some to do that to you.  So, if you find yourself doing this, check your attitude.  It may be “bound” by your own negative stereotypes.

7.Don’t “talk down” to the person or comment on how “brave” they are. This can also be condescending but sadly, this is not an uncommon experience for individuals who use wheelchairs.  Pity

8.Don’t take control of a person’s wheelchair. Assuming that you know what the person needs can be dangerous.  If the person seems to actually need assistance, ask them IF they do.  If they accept, ask HOW.  Listen carefully and follow directions exactly. Never assume.

9.Answer your children’s questions or let them ask themselves. It’s natural for children to be curious so answer their questions honestly.  I know many people who are happy to answer children’s questions about how they move in a wheelchair, etc.  At the same time, a friend told me recently of a child who was using the back his chair as a jungle gym while the parents stood by and watched. Please don’t allow this to happen.

10.Accessible means Available. Accessible parking, entrances, aisles, counters, restrooms are there for a reason.  We all benefit from curb cuts, ramps, automatic door openers, wider aisles, lower counters, etc.  However, we do not all need accessible parking or restroom stalls so leave these for those who do.

I know and have known many people who use wheelchairs and can confidently repeat what I’ve heard many times.  Pity is not wanted or needed but respect and equal access is.

If you see/perceive a person who uses a wheelchair as sick, sad or incapable, you need meet some of
my amazing, happy, successful friends…who happen to use wheelchairs.

To learn more……

In loving memory of my dear friend Bill Scott who taught me (and so many others) SO much!