Wheelchairs help people with limited mobility get around. It is a tool that helps them complete tasks or go about daily activities that they would not otherwise have been able to complete. However, many people still feel uncomfortable or simply do not know how to act when they are communicating with a wheelchair user.
We’ve put together some helpful tips for you to keep in mind when interacting with a wheelchair user, be it a friend or even a stranger.
Do not touch, lift or move a wheelchair without permission
A wheelchair is an extension of one’s body. Touching, lifting or moving a wheelchair is akin to touching someone’s body without permission. Unless it is an emergency, please refrain from doing so.
There’s no need to bend down or kneel to their level
Speak to them as you would an able-bodied person. After all, you wouldn’t bend or kneel when speaking to someone unless they are a child. Wheelchair users are able to hear you just fine from when you stand.
Don’t speak over or about them like a third person
Always acknowledge and communicate with them as you would a normal person. Do refrain from asking the people around them if they need help. Instead, communicate with them directly. For example, ask them if they need help with something rather than asking the people who are with them.
Don’t assume that they’re completely unable to walk
Just because they’re in a wheelchair does not mean that they aren’t ambulatory (mobile). They do not owe you an explanation about their condition either. So please do not question them about it or doubt their disability.
Don’t ask what happened to them
Unless they give you permission to do so, do not question how or why they are disabled. It is a personal matter and it is not of your concern. If you have children, be sure to teach them not to point or ask about a wheelchair user’s body.
Don’t move an empty wheelchair
If a wheelchair user transfers out of his or her wheelchair, do not move their wheelchair away unless they give you permission to do so. Taking away their wheelchair is equivalent to taking away their legs. If it’s absolutely necessary to move their wheelchair, be sure to ask for their permission first.
Avoid words like ‘wheelchair-bound’ or ‘confined to a wheelchair’
Wheelchairs are mobility aids that help disabled people get around. They are not bound or limited to one, as it offers them freedom to move around. Instead, use the term ‘wheelchair user’ when you are referring to them.
Make space for them to move if necessary
It’s a lot easier to move as an able-bodied person than as a wheelchair user. So, give space for them to move or if they need more clearance.
Don’t act like a wheelchair user is invisible
Acknowledge them and treat them as you would anyone else. You don’t have to pretend that their wheelchair is invisible either.
These are just some of the basic etiquette rules you should practise. A general rule would be, if you wouldn’t do it to an able-bodied person, you wouldn’t do it to someone in a wheelchair either. Always treat someone in a wheelchair with respect and acknowledge them as you would another person.
Charlie K. (2021) Twitter thread: Since it’s Disability Pride Month… [Accessed: 6 July 2021] Available at: https://twitter.com/CKnightWrites/status/1411464482199457793
Charlie K. (2021) Twitter thread: In yesterday’s Wheelchair Etiquette thread… [Accessed: 6 July 2021] Available at: https://twitter.com/CKnightWrites/status/1411806112798568450
Hanna L. (2017) Wheelchair Etiquette: 10 Tips for Interactions with Wheelchair Users [Accessed: 6 July 2021] Available at: https://www.avacaremedical.com/blog/10-tips-for-interactions-with-wheelchair-users.html
Jules S. (2021) Tips for Wheelchair Etiquette [Accessed: 6 July 2021] Available at: https://www.mobility-advisor.com/wheelchair-etiquette.html