How to Meet Someone in a Wheelchair Without Being Awkward
Have you ever been out somewhere and seen or met someone in a wheelchair, and not known how to act? Well, here is some advice from someone who has been on both ends of the situation. Keep in mind that I have only been in a manual wheelchair, and that people who use motorized wheelchairs may be different on some issues. Also, people who use wheelchairs use them for a variety of reasons, and people have of course a variety of personalities/likes/dislikes/etc, so not everyone will feel the way I do or have the same needs. That being said, I have quite a bit of experience working with people who are in wheelchairs, as well as with being in one myself.
Just because a person’s legs do not work, does not mean that the person’s brain does not work. A person who uses a wheelchair may also have cognitive disabilities, but don’t automatically assume that. If you are meeting a person for the first time, treat them like you would anyone else; only simplify your conversation if it becomes clear that it is necessary. Even if the person does have a cognitive disability—even severe—don’t assume that they don’t want to meet you, or won’t understand anything. These people get overlooked and ignored a lot because people don’t know how to act around them. If the person has a caregiver with them, you can look to the caregiver for help on how to talk to the person or how to act. If the person does not have a caregiver with them, they may understand more than you think—just act naturally. Some disabilities, like cerebral palsy, can cause slurred or slow speech and may make the person seem like they have a cognitive disability when they don’t.
Don’t assume that someone in a manual wheelchair needs, or wants, to be pushed. If somebody is wheeling him/herself around and appears to be tired or having trouble, it’s usually ok to politely ask the person if they would like help. If they decline, leave it at that. Sometimes a person may be exhausted or struggling, and would be grateful for any help, although they may not want to ask for it; other times the person may want to have as much independence as possible. If the manual wheelchair doesn’t have handles, this can be taken as a pretty clear sign that the person does not want to be pushed.
If you are talking to someone in a wheelchair, try not to be standing for the entire conversation, if possible. It gets tiring to constantly be looking up as you are talking to somebody, and it can make a person feel somewhat inferior to be sitting and talking to someone who is standing. Don’t bend down as if you’re talking to a small child, but if you are able to, sit down in a chair or on a bench. If this is not possible, don’t feel too awkward—the person is probably used to it and understands that there is nowhere for you to sit.
Please don’t stare. Most of us have been taught from an early age that it’s not polite to stare, but we all know that this is sometimes easier said than done. Most people with any kind of disability would much rather have someone come up and introduce themselves than to have them stare and wonder what’s wrong. There are always people who would rather be left alone, but that goes for the general population as well.
Don’t start a conversation by asking what’s wrong with the person. Whether it’s a new disability or one they were born with, the person has probably had a lot of conversations and answered a lot of questions about what is wrong with them. It’s better to introduce yourself and then make small talk or find some common ground to talk about, like you would do with anyone else. The person may tell you later in the conversation how they came to be in a wheelchair. If they don’t, it’s usually ok to ask after you have gotten to know them a little bit. Try not to be self conscious or awkward about asking—this makes it more awkward for them, and it’s best if you can bring it up naturally.
Don’t avoid the person just because you don’t know how to act. People who are in wheelchairs get this a lot, and it can be a lonely feeling. Even if it’s scary or awkward, try to steel yourself and go talk to them anyway. A lot of people will be glad to meet someone new, and if you act a little unsure of yourself at first, it will probably be overlooked. You will find that as you get to know the person you will quickly lose your awkwardness.
Don’t pity the person. The disability, and therefore the wheelchair, that a person has are a part of that person’s everyday life. While it may seem like a horrible thing to you to have to live that way, keep in mind that this is everyday life for the person. They are still trying to live life as normally as possible, and usually don’t appreciate pity.
These are just a few ideas to get you started talking to someone you might not otherwise know how to talk to. With all human interactions, there is nothing universal that will work for everyone—it’s no different for someone in a wheelchair. The most important thing to remember when talking to someone in a wheelchair, or with any other disability, is that basically they’re the same as the rest of us. They still have the same wants, needs, emotions, etc as anyone else—they just happen to have a body that doesn’t work right. If you don’t remember anything else from this hub, remember this: treat a person in a wheelchair like you would treat anyone else.