Interacting With a Wheelchair User

Here are some tips to avoid awkwardnss when interacting with someone in a wheelchair (from

  1. It is appropriate to shake hands with a person who has a disability, even if they have limited use of their hands or wear an artificial limb.
  2. Always ask the person who uses a wheelchair if he or she would like assistance before you jump in to help. Your help may not be needed or wanted.
  3. Don’t hang or lean on a person’s wheelchair. A wheelchair is part of his or her own personal or body space, so don’t lean on it, rock it, etc.
  4. Speak directly to the person who uses the wheelchair, not to someone who is nearby as if the wheelchair user did not exist.
  5. If your conversation lasts more than a few minutes, consider sitting down, etc. to get yourself on the same eye-level as the person who uses the wheelchair. It will keep both of you from getting a stiff neck!
  6. Don’t demean or patronize the person who uses a wheelchair by patting him or her on the head.
  7. When giving directions, think abut things like travel distance, location of curbcuts and ramps, weather conditions and physical obstacles that may hinder their travel.
  8. Don’t discourage children from asking questions of a person who uses a wheelchair about their wheelchair. Open communication helps overcome fearful or misleading attitudes.
  9. When a person who uses a wheelchair “transfers” out of the wheelchair to a chair, pew, car, toilet or bed, do not move the wheelchair out of reach. If you think it would be best to move it for some reason ask the person who uses the wheelchair about the best option for them.
  10. It is OK to use expressions like “running along” or “let’s go for a walk” when speaking to person who uses a wheelchair. It is likely they express the idea of moving along in exactly the same way.
  11. People who use wheelchairs have varying capabilities. Some person who use wheelchairs can walk with aid or for short distances. They use wheelchairs because they help them to conserve energy and to move about with greater efficiency.
  12. Don’t classify or think of people who use wheelchairs as “sick.” Wheelchairs are used to help people adapt to or compensate for the mobility impairments that result from many non-contagious impairments. Some of these are, for example, spinal cord injury, stroke, amputation, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, post polio, heart disease, etc.
  13. Check your assumptions! Don’t assume that using a wheelchair is a tragedy. Wheelchairs when they are sell fitted and well chosen are actually a means of freedom that allows the user to move about independently and fully engage in life.
  14. Don’t pet guide dogs or other service animals…they are working.

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