Roll With It, Inc | by Jennifer McCallson"

The Basics of Wheelchair Etiquette: What Not to Say and Why

Written by Jennifer McCallson on October 26, 2015

I know that you can see that I use a wheelchair, and that may spark some curiosity about how I manage certain life activities and what not. However, there are some questions and/or comments, as well intentioned as you think they are, that are actually rude and offensive. For the record, if you do not know me, it is not ok to approach me and ask me why I use a wheelchair. Period.

If, upon meeting me, you ask “what happened?” You will most likely get the response “nothing, I’m having a great day.” And that’s the truth. Nothing has happened in a VERY long time to elicit a complete stranger approaching me with that question. And for the record, it is not painful for me to talk about (but it could be for someone else) nor am I bitter, but it is exhausting and inconsequential.  If you try to clarify and ask “Oh, I mean why do you need/use a wheelchair?” You will then get “my name is Jennifer.” Would you ask someone why they had a particular freckle on their nose, or why their hair is a certain color?

You may even further try to justify your intrusiveness with “well the only reason I ask is because my aunt/cousin/sister/mother/friend has xyz condition and they use a wheelchair, so you know….” I know what? That you know someone who uses a wheelchair? Just because you associate with another person who uses a wheelchair does not entitle you to information about my private life. It does not mean “you’re in the club.” There is no club. If there was such a club your statement above denotes that you would obviously not be a member.

Now, if you are complementing the design of my chair or curious about a specific feature, that is perfectly acceptable to ask about. My wheelchair is very customized and has some interesting features that have really enabled me to be quite independent. I love sharing that information and creating awareness. But to approach me as if I am not ok, something bad has happened, or something is wrong with me, is unacceptable and frankly it makes you appear superficial and ignorant.

More things NOT to say (that I have personally experienced) when approaching a person who uses a wheelchair:

“It’s so good to see people like you out.” Seriously? This is not a positive affirmation. Who are “people like me?” Is having to use a wheelchair equated with being a hermit? Are you not aware that it is 2015? People who don’t operate according to your definition of normal are not treated as shut-ins anymore.

“Do you know (insert name)? S/he uses a wheelchair too?” More than likely I don’t. Although I am quite involved and connected in the community of those who use wheelchairs, it does not mean that I know everyone who uses a wheelchair.

“You’re so pretty for a girl in a wheelchair.” What does that even mean? So, if I were to get up and walk around I would be less attractive? Are people who use wheelchairs inherently unattractive? It is as if you are telling me that my mobility device is so unattractive that my average appearance trumps it in comparison. Jerk.

“I broke my leg and had to use a wheelchair for 6 weeks, so I totally get it.” No you don’t. You were inconvenienced and in pain for a brief moment in life. You could hop up a flight of stairs on your good leg with a healthy struggle if you could not find an elevator.  I only use elevators.
Side note on elevator etiquette: People who use wheelchairs, the elderly, and the sick get first and equal priority. Next (in this order) workers with large carts of items, baby strollers, and then everyone else. It’s a pretty logical and simple concept. 

“Don’t go getting a speeding ticket.” Just stop. It’s not funny.

Things you CAN say if wanting to approach someone who uses a wheelchair:

  • Hi, my name is…what’s your name?
  • Come here often?
  • Oh hey, nice dress/shoes/purse/eyes/smile/hair/toes/etc.
  • What kind of breed is your dog?
  • Wow, the weather has been really (insert condition) lately, don’t you think?
  • My name is (state your name), are you waiting for someone? Can I buy you a drink?
  • Are you a (insert team name) fan?
  • I love this song! What’s your favorite music genre?
  • Hi. How’s it going?

I understand that it is hard to not notice that I use a wheelchair. And, although needing to use a wheelchair has influenced the shape and direction of my life, I do not let it define who I am as a person. If we become friends then you will most likely learn my story. Until then though, PLEASE stop acknowledging an inanimate object before acknowledging me as a fellow human being who happens to be using that inanimate object.