Woman in a wheelchair talking on the phone

There are some experiences – both positive and negative – that only wheelchair users could understand. For people who don’t have any experience with wheelchairs, either directly or indirectly, there are some things that are helpful to know about wheelchair etiquette. Most of us want to do the right thing, and can inadvertently have a miscue even though our intentions are good. There are also those out there who don’t seem to have the inclination to learn the considerate way to do things, no matter who they offend.

We like to go on the assumption that most people are inherently thoughtful and considerate, and for those people, we hope this article will be helpful. Maybe you can help us educate individuals who don’t seem to care one way or the other.

Here are nine things people say and do that drive most wheelchair users crazy:

  1. Insisting on Helping – When someone is in a wheelchair it’s a natural inclination to want to be helpful, and wheelchair users generally appreciate help when they ask for it. When people assume they need to help, by grabbing something off the shelf at the grocery store without asking first, for example, it feels insulting. Many times people don’t need any assistance and will ask for it if they do. By helping someone without them asking you presumes they need help, which can feel invalidating. If someone in a wheelchair appears to need help, the polite thing to do is ask – like you would any other person, disabled or not.
  2. Unearned Congratulations – Imagine going about your day and someone you don’t know came up to you and said, “Great job navigating that tricky patch of the road!” You’d feel puzzled, most likely, and probably a bit hurt. By congratulating or cheering on someone in a wheelchair while they are simply going about their day, it feels the same way. It implies that even the daily business of life is too hard and that congratulations are needed just to get from one end of the day to the other. This is far from true, as wheelchair users are just like everyone else in most respects, and don’t need encouragement unless they are doing something truly praise-worthy and exceptional. If it isn’t something you’d congratulate an able-bodied person for, then it isn’t something to congratulate a wheelchair user for, either.
  3. Asking for Wheelchair Tricks – Asking someone in a wheelchair to perform ‘tricks’, like ‘popping a wheelie’, or spinning around, is insulting. It leaves the impression that you perceive them as a wheelchair user first, and a human being second.
  4. Taking an Accessible Parking Space – This may seem obvious to most people, but don’t park in a wheelchair-only accessible parking space unless you are in a wheelchair or accompanying someone who is. Not even to ‘pop in’ to a store quickly, or wait for someone to run into a store and come back out. You also need to leave the space around the handicap spots open, as it is often needed to maneuver a wheelchair in and out of a vehicle. Nobody can predict when a wheelchair user will need the spot, and forcing them to wait or to ask when you’re leaving is impolite and inconsiderate. Leave those spaces available to the people who need them, no matter what.
  5. Talking Slowly – People sometimes talk slowly to people in wheelchairs. It’s obvious why this would feel insulting to someone who doesn’t have any problem with their hearing or comprehension. Talk to people in wheelchairs like a regular person, because that’s what they are.
  6. Giving Life Advice – Giving someone in a wheelchair a pep talk for no apparent reason isn’t helpful. Again, think about how you would feel if a stranger did this to you, out of the blue. Giving someone life advice when they haven’t asked for it implies they need life advice. Like everyone else, wheelchair users will ask for support (and not to a stranger) if they need it.
  7. Do You Know Sarah? – This is one of the most insulting things people say. It may be a misguided attempt at identifying with someone in a wheelchair, but saying things like “I have a friend who uses a wheelchair”, or “Do you know my friend so-and-so? She uses a wheelchair too!” is just plain rude. It would be like asking someone with brown hair if they know your friend who also has brown hair.
  8. Trying to Relate – Telling someone in a wheelchair about the time you had to use crutches, or another ailment that was difficult, is not the same as living in a wheelchair. Again, perhaps the intention is good, but unless you are in a wheelchair yourself you can’t relate to that experience, and trying to do so is frustrating and insulting.
  9. Asking to Race – Asking a wheelchair user to race you isn’t okay. You wouldn’t ask an able-bodied person you just met to race, and the same etiquette applies to wheelchair users. Don’t ask how fast the wheelchair can go, either. If you are genuinely curious about this, you can find information about that on the internet.

To many people, this list may seem kind of ridiculous, because a lot of us are considerate and wouldn’t dream of saying or doing most of the things on this list. But it’s always helpful to provide information – directly from wheelchair users themselves – about what to say, and what not to say. It’s all in the interest of treating each other kindly, and with respect.

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