Looking for inspiration for this blog post, a friend suggested I write a definitive guide on how best to interact and socialise with wheelchair users. Well, I can’t really do that because, just like walkies, all wheelchair users are individuals and should be treated as such.
Out of all the guides I’ve read and heard, something is clear – everybody thinks their rules are the right ones and apply across the board. The problem with many of these articles is that they are written by able bodied people with no real knowledge of disability other than skewed sympathy, or written by disabled people who fall in to the trap of trying to over-simplify things for whatever reason. Trying to maintain healthy communications with a disabled person is as complex and tricky as it is with an able person. Just like walking people, wheelchair users are individuals and there are no hard and fast rules that apply to 100% of us. I do get fed up, though, of being patronised and talked down to just because I’m shorter so I’m going to tell you about the rule book I have in my house which all my assistants have to read and agree to which tells them how I like to be treated.
The first thing is DON’T CROUCH! I’m not a child and you are not Supernanny – there is no reason to ‘come down to my level’. Actually, the picture in this post explains it better than I ever could. Just pretend all wheelchair users are short people. I’m only 5 foot 1 so it still works. I get quite passive aggressive if people are standing right on top of me as that’s quite intimidating but, when removing myself from the situation, I just run over their foot or bash into a leg. Which was obviously an accident.
Whether I am in it or not, don’t touch my wheelchair without my express permission. It’s so tempting for people to hang their bags off your handles which ruins any back support. It’s not okay to sit in my chair or ask for a go in it. Can I have a go on your legs? Well then. Don’t wait ‘til I move from my chair then load it up with shopping, coats, whatever you can’t be arsed to carry. My wheelchair handles are not a convenient place to lean or rest so don’t be upset when I move and let you fall on your face. Don’t move me or my chair a single inch – not because I’m blocking somebody else, not because you want to see something and I’m in the way – and don’t let other people do it either. You wouldn’t move a walking person out of the way without a slap. Trust me. I’m not gonna treat you differently.
Because I’m in a wheelchair and therefore height challenged, people assume I’m stupid, slow, can’t speak up for myself when anyone who knows me will tell you I am a gobby little madam. People tend to talk to the person I am with and ask them about me – my dad calls this ‘does she take sugar?’ syndrome. My rule here is to always talk to me and to make other people do it too. I often pipe up and… make my presence known when I feel ignored or offended. Most people are shocked I have the audacity to have a voice of my own but then they talk to me. Once, a man started asking my assistant what exercises I could do and, when I told him the best person to know my capabilities was me, he just smiled and carried on as before. Needless to say we left immediately and never went back. His appalling attitude just cost his company a £35 per month gym membership.
The final thing I’ll talk about here is sympathy and helping. It’s fine to be sympathetic to people facing challenges you’re not but be careful not to let thatget skewed into being patronising. I hate it when people just do things for me and expect me to be grateful. I’m perfectly capable of opening a packet or folding towels given a little extra time so it’s annoying when people think they’re being splendidly helpful by doing it for me right away. If I want or need help, I will ask. It’s also fine to offer or ask if I want assistance if I am visibly struggling. Let me try before admitting defeat.
Yes, the whole process of interacting with wheelchair users is as much a minefield as socialising with anyone else. Yes, I am a complicated woman who wants respect as an individual. I guess the trick is to remember that you are talking to a person, not their disability.