When You Meet a Person Who Uses A Wheelchair

It is estimated that at least 25 million persons have mobility problems. Of these, approximately 500,000 use wheelchairs. People use wheelchairs as a result of a variety of disabilities, including spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, arthritis, cerebral palsy, polio, etc. Wheelchairs provide mobility for persons with paralysis, muscle weakness, lack of coordination, nerve damage, and/or stiffness of joints. Wheelchairs come in many sizes and shapes which are adapted to the lifestyle of the user. They range from custom-designed models for sports activities to basic utility models for use in hospitals and airports. Despite their active participation in our society, most people who use wheelchairs encounter attitudinal barriers which affect their lives on a daily basis.

What Can You Do?

  1. Do not automatically hold on to a person’s wheelchair. It is part of the person’s body space. Hanging or leaning on the chair is similar to hanging or leaning on a person sitting in any chair. It is often fine if you are friends, but inappropriate if you are strangers.
  2. Offer assistance if you wish, but do not insist. If a person needs help (s)he will accept your offer and tell you exactly what will be helpful. If you force assistance it can sometimes be unsafe as when you grab the chair and the person using it loses his/her balance.
  3. Talk directly to the person using the wheelchair, not to a third party. The person is not helpless or unable to talk.
  4. Don’t be sensitive about using words like “walking” or “running.” People using wheelchairs use the same words.
  5. Be alert to the existence of architectural barriers in your office and when selecting a restaurant, home, theatre or other facility, to which you want to visit with a person who uses a wheelchair.
  6. If conversation proceeds more than a few minutes and it is possible to do so, consider sitting down in order to share eye level. It is uncomfortable for a seated person to look straight up for a long period.
  7. Don’t park your car in a parking place in an accessible parking place. These places are reserved out of necessity, not convenience. The space is wider than usual in order to get wheelchairs in and out of the car and is close to the entrance for those who cannot push far.
  8. When your dept., church, civic group or organization sponsors a program, be sure people with disabilities are included in the planning and presentation.
  9. When children ask about wheelchairs and people who use them, answer them in a matter-of-fact manner. Wheelchairs, bicycles and skates share a lot in common.
  10. When you hear someone use the term “cripple,” politely but firmly indicate your preference for the words “person who has a disability.”
  11. If you wish to contribute to an organization that uses a “pity” or “sympathy” campaign, enclose a note with your check saying that the cause may be good, but the method of public appeal is demeaning to citizens with disabilities. Voice your disapproval of the “poor cripple” image.
  12. Include people with disabilities in photos used in promotional material. When people with disabilities are presented in the media as competent, or “like other people,” write a note of support to the producer or publisher.
  13. Make sure meeting places are architecturally accessible (with ramps, modified bathrooms, wide doors, low telephones, etc.) so that people with disabilities can be equal participants.
  14. Encourage your community to put “curb cuts” in sidewalks. These inexpensive built-in ramps enable wheelchair users to get from place to place independently.
  15. Include people who use wheelchairs on community task forces (transportation, building, zoning) so that your town will meet the needs of all citizens.
  16. Make it a point to try to reduce barriers in your physical surroundings. Often these barriers have been created by architects, engineers and builders who were unaware. A simple “How could someone using a wheelchair get in here?” will help identify any barriers.

Taken from the handbook entitled Free Wheeling published by the Regional Rehabilitation Research Institute on Attitudinal, Legal and Leisure Barriers, Washington, D.C.