Miss Manners on Wheels

Aka how to be polite to people who have a disability

  1. Focus on what the wheelie CAN do, on who they are as a person, rather than on any limitations from their disability. Everyone has something they struggle with.
  2. Offer to shake their hand even if they have decreased movement or wear a prosthetic hand, and then take your cue from their reaction.
  3. Don’t assume you know better than they do. Ask if they would like help before you jump in to do something. Many wheelies are proud of their independence, and many ‘caring’ acts done in ignorance are viewed as more condescending/annoying than supportive.
  4. Just because they are the same height as a child or large dog, don’t pat their head or offer them treats for tricks. Don’t pet their service animals without asking either.The animal’s focus needs to be on their owner and their job.
  5. Many wheelies consider their wheelchair as part of their personal space. Don’t intrude into that space unless you share a level of intimacy that makes that intrusion appropriate and welcome. Don’t hang on, lean on, rest your feet on or rock their chair. It is rude, intrusive and may even be painful.
  6. A wheelchair is often a means of freedom that allows the user to move about independently and fully engage in life, so save the empathy for tragedies and treat the chair with some respect. When a wheelie transfers out of their wheelchair to a chair, car, toilet, bed etc, do not move their wheelchair out of reach without asking. How would you like someone moving your legs without asking first?
  7. Speak directly to the wheelie. Don’t assume someone with them is their ‘carer’. In group situations, make sure to include them, not form a standing huddle, which leads to the next point…
  8. Generally people of our culture prefer to look into someone’s eyes when they talk so try to sit at the same eye-level as the wheelie during prolonged conversations so they don’t get a crick in their neck looking up at you and you don’t get back strain from bending down.
  9. When giving directions, include the position of curb-cuts, ramps, lifts and physical obstacles, as well as considering possible complications from weather conditions, distance, stairs and crowds which can create issues for people in a wheelchair. Try not to block the public pathway by parking trucks and trailers that overhang, and don’t leave obstacles on the ramps. A walking person might be able to avoid these obstacles and squeeze past, but they can bar a wheelie’s passage.
  10. Wheelies often use colloquial expressions like “walk on eggshells” or “going fora walk”. Given the varying capabilities of wheelies, some may be able to walk short distances, but even if they can’t, such expressions are not literal and are widely used generally. Trying to avoid such expressions could sound stilted and even be considered offensive by some.
  11. Don’t suggest medical break throughs as if you were the only person that knew of them. Not everyone can reach what able body people think the holly grail is “to walk again” A lot of wheelchair uses were born with a disability and others have conditions that are deteriorating. Most wheelies that have a slight possibility to walk again are usually very informed to what medical treatments are around. Others you will just make them feel worse as they don’t have the money, time off work or support to undertake these treatments.