13 Tips on How to Interact with a Wheelchair User

National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month

September is National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month in the USA. There are approximately 200,000 people living with spinal cord injuries (SCI) in the United States. Every 48 seconds in their country, a person becomes paralyzed. So, I’m going to review some tips on how to interact with a wheelchair user that I have found at the link above and add some of my own at the end:

1. Don’t pat them on the head. I know it can be awkward trying to figure out how to greet a wheelchair user if they have no arm or hand movement but trust me, no grown man, and a lot of grown women I would imaging feel the same way, don’t want to be pat on the head.

2. If they can move their arms and not their hands, when they extend their hand to shake yours, shake it like you would any other person. Doing the ‘daps’ thing is ok to okish at best. An actual handshake is always fine…’they’ may not be able to open their hand but ‘you’ can still shake it normally.

3. Talk TO them, not to the person they are with about them. Make eye contact. They are just like anyone else and can talk for themselves. Let’s say you are at a restaurant for example, if you want to know if a particular seating area is OK for them, ask them, not their companion so they can tell you for themselves.

4. Treat the chair as part of their body. So if you would not pile stuff on an abled bodied person’s lap without asking first, don’t do it to a wheelchair user. As tempting as it may be, don’t hop on the back of their chair for a ride when they are moving unless invited to do so as this can cause it to tip over possibly injuring both of you. If they are not using their chair, don’t just hop in it and play around without permission as it’s their way of getting around. Number one, you might just flip back and hurt and make a fool of yourself. Number two, it’s not a toy. And it’s not a ride, think of the chair as your legs… it’s a part of us. And they cost a few thousand to about $70,000 depending on if it’s a manual or power chair and features it may have. Respect it and the owner.

5. It’s always ok to ask if you can help them if you sense they may need it. Depending on the situation, they may decline your offer of help. But they will ALWAYS appreciate the offer.

6. Accept that they may not go to some events or places if they feel like they are going to cause disruption, need more help than they are comfortable with receiving, etc. Don’t get frustrated with them. Even if you’re willing to help, that still doesn’t make it comfortable for them to go at times. On the flipside, don’t assume they don’t want to be included in things either as they want to be treated like anyone else. Just ask them.

7. Do not judge them for being late. There’s so much that goes on with paralysis that you can’t even imagine so being late even with the best planning and with assistance happens quite a bit.

8. Quit telling them they are an inspiration for just getting out and doing everyday things. Not every wheelchair user wants to be your inspiration just for doing daily activities. And sometimes it comes off like, “Damn, your life must be shitty, but you go girl (man), look at you grocery shopping anyway.”

9. Did you know that most paralyzed people actually have some sensation? It may feel to them like they are wrapped in layers of duct tape, or it may only be burning pain, or it may just be pressure they can sense, but they may actually have varying degrees of sensation in various places. Maybe not, it just depends on the person and the severity of disability.

10. Don’t assume that they can or can’t do something. Asking is perfectly fine.

11. Their spouse, significant other, parent, or whoever spends the most time with them helping them with daily needs… needs more of a break than you could ever imagine. Don’t assume otherwise. Offer help if you feel moved to do so. And usually it’s more effective to offer something specific rather than just asking if you can help. Examples of some things you could offer: offer to take out the trash, offer to help transfer the person in the wheelchair to the couch for them, etc. That extra pair of hands and brief break are appreciated more than you know at the end of the day. Sometimes they just want to be the spouse, significant other, parent, etc and not the helper all the time.

12. I haven’t experienced this as I was disabled from birth but if you ever know of someone who experiences paralysis from an injury or whatever it may be, keep in mind that the initial period after being paralyzed is a very common time for friends and family to desert them. Well, they tend to have a lot of visitors the first few weeks because it’s a hot topic in their circle. But then that comes to an end. Don’t do that. They are already dealing with enough, the last thing they need is to feel like they have to deal with it alone.

13. Don’t park in an accessible spot OR the hashmarks next to it.. Besides being illegal, unless you’ve experienced it, you really have no idea the trouble this causes someone in a wheelchair. And those hashmarks? Are not for motorcycles. They are for wheelchair ramps, and space for a wheelchair to exit, you’d be surprised how much room we need to get in and out of a vehicle.

BONUS TIP: Try to avoid doing something that will result in your own paralysis.. Because chances are, you won’t find it very fun if you break your neck or your back and become paralyzed yourself.






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