What not to say or ask a wheelchair user?

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

Using a wheelchair in broad daylight requires you to build up a strong defense mechanism, as it will in general lead strangers to take for granted that they can approach you with pity in their eyes and attitude. They will tend to push your wheelchair without your permission or grab your stuff out of your hand to help you carry them or overtake you to open a door for you which you could have opened yourself.

It can feel nearly as intrusive to deal with all inappropriate remarks able individuals feel qualified to toss at you only because you are a wheelchair user. If you are one of those people, here are few things wheelchair users like me would really like you to know as in: What should you never say to a wheelchair user?

  • "What befell you?"

The usage of a wheelchair is only to get around, however, it is seen by certain individuals as an opportunity to approach us as doctors who know all about our medical condition. Some smart individuals will even have an advice or two as to how you can take care of yourself, while they have no clue about how each day spending in that wheelchair feels like. For some of us, the reasons of using a wheelchair are complicated and difficult to explain. Sometimes talking about these reasons, itself can be unsettling and trauma triggering. However, keeping the difficulty to explain or awkwardness to discuss the reasons of being a wheelchair user aside, truth be told, it is nobody’s business to know why we are in a wheelchair unless we proactively decide to engage in such a conversation.

We do not need to justify our need to use our wheelchairs. For those who are curious, kindly let them know that “Curiosity killed a cat”. If they think we are specimens on display meant to rouse and then curb their curiosity, then they are welcome to be the cat that got killed out of curiosity. I mean it, show no mercy, be on your sarcastic best when dealing with such people.

Also, if you are an able-bodied reader, kindly refrain from asking a wheelchair user this question.

  • "Do you truly require the wheelchair?"

This question is usually directed at people who do not require to use the wheelchair permanently. There are wheelchair users who are able to move, stretch, cross their legs, stand up for few seconds to grab something off the shelf, transfer in and out of their chairs; however it does not in any way mean they are faking their need to use a wheelchair temporarily. It is very frustrating for a wheelchair user when they are compared with someone who refused to give up or a Paralympic athlete who beat all the odds without knowing the nature of their own disability. Different people have different disabilities and there is no stand of what a disabled person can or cannot do.

Stereotyping abilities of a disabled person or comparing them with their not so similar counterparts simply goes to prove how narrow minded you are. So, for the sake of saving your own reputation, avoid asking this question.

  • "Poor you, you are so young!"

Basically, every wheelchair user younger than 50 has heard this one sooner or later. A few people relate disability with age, thinking of it as a natural course of aging rather than something that can happen to anyone whenever and wherever, regardless of their age.

As para power-lifter and fitness trainer for wheelchair users I get to involve myself with other wheelchair users and their families. Very often when I go to events and if I happen to ask whether they brought someone along with them, they feel offended as if I challenged their capability of being self-dependent. We often forget that it this feeling of being self-dependent that helps them to live their lives to the fullest and love themselves for who they are, while for others holds them back and prohibits them from living a fulfilled life.

  • Get your wheelchair fixed!"

This is one of the most annoying advises that we wheelchair users get. At times due to lack of training on how to handle a wheelchair, our wheelchairs tend to get mishandled by transit employees at bus / train stations or airports. I have been in several situations where my wheelchair broke because the transit workers would simply throw my wheelchair on the luggage belt for me to retrieve it.

Most of us wheelchair users must at some time dealt with a busted-up wheelchair for a short duration of time until we can get it fixed. This is primarily because not all of us have on the go means of fixing or replacing our wheelchairs. People who give us advises to grease our wheels because they are squeaking or fix the seat because it is torn do not realize that how expensive and hard it can be for us to repair our wheelchair. Thinking that one can joke about it or such advises are helpful, only goes to show how insensitive people can be of other people’s situations.

This insensitivity even goes as far as people commenting about our wheelchairs in general. At times when I struggle with my manual wheelchair on the slopes, people advise me to get a motorized wheelchair. Little do they realize that probably the conditions in which I use my wheelchair is not suited for a motorized wheelchair or maybe the buying / maintenance that a motorized wheelchair requires is an expense that may not be able to afford.

So if you see a wheelchair user, using a wheelchair that is outdated or seems beat up, understand that the person sitting on the wheelchair undoubtedly already realizes that and that the person is simply making the best use of what he has rather than whining about what he cannot.

  • "Will you ever be able to walk?"

People who usually ask this question most likely ask it with goodwill in their thoughts. They see an individual using a wheelchair – perhaps an individual they know who hasn't generally used one, or an individual who is young or "looks healthy" – and they can't see an explanation why that individual may require a wheelchair. They usually assume that the individual is using the wheelchair temporarily while they recover from a temporary injury or illness.

This is most likely particularly befuddling when capable individuals experience somebody who can switch mobility aids, who may turn out in the wheelchair one day and on walking stick the following. They expect that strolling days are indications of progress toward improving, and days in the wheelchair are indications of relapse. They need to applaud me in my "recuperation" on days when I am by all accounts improving, yet in all actuality my body just lets me move around and bear weight on things more on certain days than others. It will most likely consistently be that way.

Accepting an individual is going to "show signs of improvement" from their incapacity or disease can be destructive if that individual is yet dealing with what their condition implies for them, both every day and later. It can likewise make an individual who realizes they are probably going to consistently be handicapped feel like you don't esteem their life except if they some time or another become a form of them self that is preposterous.

  • "I am apologetic."

You can say you are apologetic if you chance upon us or outing and spill something on us. You should state you are apologetic if you did not know better and committed one of those errors, such as pushing our seats without asking and afterward being remedied by us. Yet kindly do not state you are sorry because we are disabled.

At the point when I have one of the above discussions with somebody and reveal to them that indeed, I am truly impaired and truly, I likely consistently will be, the reaction I often get is a conciliatory sentiment. What I hear when I disclose to you the real factors of my body and hear "I am apologetic" is that you don't think my body is sufficient simply the manner in which it is; that you do not think my life merits being looked up for since I cannot do everything numerous others can.

I discover approaches to do things that are imperative to me, to associate with the things and my loved ones, and to make my life in this body advantageous. There are things about my life that are hard, and things that would be simpler without my assortment of inabilities and sicknesses, however there are likewise things about my life precisely as it is that I would not exchange for anything.

The wheelchair itself is certifiably not a heartbreaking thing; truth be told, getting it was perhaps the most joyful second, since it implied, I was at long last liberated from investing a large portion of my energy in bed. Attempting to make the world a spot that is really open to wheelchair users would mean significantly more to us than disclosing to us you feel sorry we must utilize them.

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