How Do You Talk to Someone in a Wheelchair?
So how do you talk to someone in a wheelchair? Well, for a start, just to clear a few things up, you won’t catch galloping wheelchair disease if you shake their hand when you first meet, nor will you turn into stone if you look them in the eye whilst talking to them. The best way to treat a disabled person is to ignore the wheelchair during a conversation and talk to the person rather than the disability.
Do I shake hands? When first meeting a disabled person, offer to shake their hand even if they appear to have limited use of their arms. This action of personal contact breaks the psychological barrier of non acceptance, and creates a warmer environment for communication.
Caregivers: If the disabled person is with a caregiver, make sure you speak to the disabled person directly, and not over their heads to the caregiver, it is very annoying and frustrating not to be included in a conversation which involves you.
Don’t Stare: When talking to someone in a wheelchair, make eye contact, talk normally in a non patronizing manner, and do not stare at their wheelchair. Also, if they have thin legs due to wasted muscle mass, or a pot belly due to paralysis of the abdominal muscles, try not to keep looking at these different aspects of the persons body, believe me, they will notice you looking!
Seeing Eye to Eye: If a conversation is expected to last longer than five minutes, find somewhere to sit down, or squat down to the wheelchair users eye level. This will reduce the wheelchair users neck from being strained during a conversation. A good way to experience how a wheelchair user feels during conversation whilst looking up, is to stare at the ceiling directly above you whilst sitting upright for five minutes. Your neck will soon start to ache!
I’m Sorry, Could You Stop Apologizing? Whist talking to a disabled person, try to talk as normally as possible, and do not apologize if you use an expression such as “I must be running along”, or “See you later” if the person as partially sighted. These expressions are part of everyday language, and the apology will probably be more offensive or embarrassing than the expression.
Touchy-Feely: To a wheelchair user, their wheelchair is part of their body and personal space and should be treated as such. Do not rest your foot on their wheelchair, or touch their wheelchair unless you have been asked to. Never move a persons wheelchair whilst they are in it unless you have been asked to, this can be very dangerous as people with a fine sense of balance can very easily fall out of their wheelchairs if not warned before being moved. If you think someone in a wheelchair needs assistance, always ask before taking any action.
Never slap a disabled person on the back or thigh as a goodwill gesture. This can cause the person to loose their balance, or trigger muscle spasms which can lead to the person falling out of their chair. Muscle spasms are uncontrollable movements in the body due to a damaged spinal cord and can be uncomfortable and painful.
Ask!: If you are unsure of something about a disabled person, which is relevant to a current situation, ask the disabled person to clarify your query. It is in the disabled persons interest to inform you of any special requirements they may have, or if they need any specialized assistive techniques. For example, most quadriplegics require some assistance when eating, whether it is just the cutting up of their food or help with feeding.
Kid’s Say The Darndest Things: If you have children, they will stare, it’s their nature. Talk to the child about disabled people, and help them to understand why people use wheelchairs. This helps prevent fearful and negative attitudes towards disabled people. I am used to children staring at my wheelchair, I see it as part of their education as they often do not know any better, unlike adults who should!
And last but not least, look beyond the chair, there is a person in front of you, not a disability!
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Apparelyzed: Spinal Cord Injury Peer Support
Reprinted with the permission of: Apparelyzed: Spinal Cord Injury Peer Support