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Celebrating Disability Pride Month with 7 Tips For Better Wheelchair Etiquette

By: Kristen Pinchbeck

Disability Pride Month is something that is very near and dear to my heart. I have so many friends and family members with varying degrees of ability and disability and I have a deep understanding of how important education is around this topic. It is so easy to forget to consider people with diabilties, and the only way to combat this is to improve our own understandings of the disabled community and their needs. Even just understanding the difference on referring to people as “disabled” versus “person with a disability” makes a huge difference. There are so many things that abled people take for granted and don’t think of on a daily basis, that it has been really hard for me to narrow down what to talk about this month.

The sociologist inside of me wanted to talk about the importance of language and even the word “disabled” which has a negative context and automatically assumes that the average person is “abled”. The activist in me wanted to talk about how we can take measures to help advance legislation to help the disabled community, and how we can all work together to make spaces more accessible for people. The teacher in me wanted to talk about all of the different forms of ability/disability and how they don’t all look the same way. But, the grandkid in me that just lost their grandma, won out.

This Disability Pride Month I wanted to specifically highlight wheelchair etiquette. My grandma who recently passed away this past May, spent most of the last 10 years in a wheelchair. She suffered from pretty severe Rheumatoid Arthritis which ravaged her joints and left her pretty off balance, so she needed the wheelchair to stay safe.

My grandma was on the Los Angeles County Commission for Disabilities which meant that she did a lot of work advocating for disabled people throughout Los Angeles. She also worked for Helping Hands for the Blind, which is an organization that runs a thrift store and donates all their proceeds to promote educational, social, and economic opportunities for the blind. Her job was to call around our town and get donations for this thrift store.

Throughout her work on the phone with the Commission and Helping Hands, people would find out she was disabled, and they would say, “you don’t sound disabled!” This question was always very triggering for her and she would explain to the person on the other end of the line that there is not one way that people with a disability sound.

But when people saw her out, there was no way to not see the fact that she was disabled. She was in a wheelchair, her hands were gnarled due to the arthritis, at one point she actually walked on the side of her foot. When we would be out, whether that was at a restaurant, the grocery store, or the doctors office, people treated her differently because she was very visibly disabled.

This brings us to Wheelchair Etiquette. I selected 7 simple ways that we can all learn to treat people in a wheelchair with greater humanity and respect, but this truly only scratches the surface. If you would like to talk about more, feel free to reach out to me at any time!

7 Steps to better Wheelchair Etiquette:

1. Acknowledge the person in the wheelchair!

There were so many times that I would see my grandma get ignored or overlooked because people were uncomfortable with her disability or didn’t know how to act around her because she was in a wheelchair. They would ask me questions about her and her needs instead of just talking directly to her. They would address me, but not her. Just acknowledge them like you would anyone else! Introduce yourself, shake their hand, treat them like a person.

2. Don’t assume they can’t walk

People that use wheelchairs have varying degrees of ability. They can often still walk short distances but need assistance for longer periods of time. If you see someone get out of a wheelchair and walk, they are not lying or faking. They know what their limitations are and how to stay safe. Do not question why they are using the chair, or if they are really disabled. My grandma could walk short distances, especially on her better days. However, it was safer and less painful for her to use her chair for longer periods of time.

3. Don’t start pushing or moving their chair

If you wouldn’t normally pick someone up and move them, you probably shouldn’t just start pushing someone’s wheelchair. The wheelchair is that person’s method of mobility. It would be like grabbing someone’s legs and pulling them along the ground. If you wouldn’t start pulling your friend on the ground when you were ready to move somewhere, don’t just assume the person in the wheelchair wants you to start pushing them. If they do ask for some assistance, that’s different. They can tell you what they are comfortable with you doing and only do those things. Very often they want to keep their independence! My grandma wanted to still move her legs and would use her legs to propel her in the chair. If we started randomly pushing her, it could actually jar her legs which was very painful.

4. Once someone transfers from their chair, don’t take it away from them without asking first or telling them where it’s going

A wheelchair is that person’s form of mobility, so taking it away from them after they have moved to a restaurant booth, pew in church, or even a toilet is effectively stranding them in that place. It can cause panic if they feel stuck without access to their chair. I know my grandma always wanted to know where her chair was at all times, and would be stuck wherever she transferred to until we brought her chair back to her.

5. Don’t touch or lean on their chair without asking

The chair is an extension of that person’s body and is a part of their personal space. It would be like leaning on someone’s shoulder without asking. It can be very uncomfortable and violates that person’s personal space. Also, if the person is moving the chair on their own, any added pressure or weight makes it harder for them to move the chair.

6. Don’t crouch down or talk to them like they are kids

When you are talking to someone in a wheelchair, you don’t need to crouch down to be at their eye level. If you wouldn’t normally crouch down for someone that is shorter than you, you don’t need to do that for someone in a wheelchair. Also, just talk to them like a fellow adult. When you crouch down, and talk to them like they are kids it makes them feel less human. Many people would often think they needed to speak louder or slower to my grandma, just because she was in a wheelchair. That just made her feel like they were assuming she couldn't understand them just because she had physical disabilities, and that they were treating her like a child.

7. Make things accessible

It takes a tiny extra step of planning to anticipate the needs of people in wheelchairs. Making sure that there are wheelchair accessible bathrooms available is huge in making them comfortable in a space. Ensuring that there is a ramp into the space is so important, because even navigating one step can be very tricky. Businesses are required by law now thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act to have a certain number of handicapped parking spaces available. Even simple things like making sure there are places at tables between chairs when throwing a party where they can roll their wheelchair up and join the table if they want to stay in their chair can go a long way in making that person feel a part of the party rather than an afterthought. Accessibility was something that my grandma spent so much time fighting for throughout her time on the Los Angeles County Commission for Disabilities and also just in her daily life. It is so important to a person in a wheelchair, and something that the rest of us should all keep in mind.

This Disability Pride Month we at the San Gabriel Valley LGBTQ Center want to recognize all of our Disabled friends. I hope everyone can take something away from this post, and I hope it inspires you on how we can all be more understanding and create a more accessible environment for every different ability. Just like we all know that there isn’t one specific look or voice of someone that is in our LGBTQ family, we need to be mindful to not stereotype or assume that all people with diabiltieis look or sound the same. Also, just like we don’t want people to assume our genders or sexuality purely based on our appearance, remember not to assume you know what disability someone does or doesn’t have. And most importantly, just like we have fought for years to be seen as valid in our gender identities and sexuality identities, we need to remember to see our friends with disabilties as equal humans that deserve to be treated with respect who have also had to fight to be recognized. We are all in this together, friends, and we at the San Gabriel Valley LGBTQ Center are working to make the San Gabriel Valley a safer and happier place for ALL!


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