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Wheelchair etiquette for devotees

You are happily browsing through books in a bookstore or maybe you are on a mission of getting another six pack in a grocery store, when suddenly from the corner of your eye you spot her. Or him. Sitting in a wheelchair. Suddenly you have a new mission. You start following that wheelchair user around. Your heart starts beating faster. You are trying to come up with some smart conversation opener. Should you gently bump into her and say: “Sorry, I didn’t see you,” and flash a big smile at her? Should you comment on the nice wheels he has?

Here are a few tips coming from both a devotee and a wheelchair user. As a devotee, my main interest lies in the fact that the person uses a wheelchair or is an amputee. My first interest doesn’t lie in a person but in the impairment. As a wheelchair user, I am hoping that people can see beyond my wheelchair. That they can see me as a person first, as a person who happens to use a wheelchair. That is the tricky part for devotees: how do you see person first if what attracts you to that person is their impairment? Well, for start, at least act in a way that you are interested in the person. That you are seeing beyond.

1. Don’t ever start your conversation with anything connected to other’s impairment. Bite your tongue if you want to ask what happened. Talk about weather, good movie, anything you would casually talk about with a stranger. If the other says a gimp joke, laugh at it, it’s OK.

2. Don’t try to say gimp jokes. Also, don’t share that your co-worker is using a chair after a car accident or your aunt uses crutches because of polio. Trust me, most wheelchair users don’t care about that information.

3. Some people think that comments like: “Slow down or you’ll get a ticket!” or “You need a beeper on that thing” are funny. They are not. They are just reminding the wheelchair users that they really are using a chair, just in case they forgot.

4. If you manage to have a conversation for more than a few minutes, squat down or sit down if you can. It’s not patronising, it prevents us from getting a neck pain.

5. Natural tendency is to help. People try to push us without even asking, they will open doors while we are half way in and then they leave their feet in our way. They will grab our grocery bags, the list goes on. A simple rule is: presume competency. Presume that the person knows what he is doing. Observe if you think they are struggling. If they are, ask if they need help. And if they do, ask what is the best way to help (especially with doors). But be aware, if the person says no to your help, respect it. There is no more efficient conversation killer than you insisting on helping me. I won’t let you help me and I will be rather crude to you. Some people might let you help them even if they would rather not be helped and will gently smile at you, but there goes any chance for acquaintance down the pit as well.

6. A wheelchair is part of my personal space. Don’t try to lean on it, put your coat on it, touch it in whatever way. Many chairs are very tippy. Because of that, it’s also a question of safety. The same goes for crutches and cane.

7. As a devotee, you probably don’t feel pity for the other. That is a big plus. Pity is never good. The other side of pity is admiration though and that one is not good either. That could be a theme for a whole different post but I will mention it here. The thing is: when you tell the other that you admire him that he is out and about, you  presume that it is very difficult for him to get out of the house into the world. If you tell the pretty lady that you admire how she manages in her chair and that she is so brave and special, you are still telling her on some level that her life is tragic, horrible and was that your life, you would quite possibly kill yourselves. Sure, there is place for admiration but be very careful. Even though I am proud of my wheeling skills, I’d rather be admired for my pretty smile, for the way I dress, for my photographs, for my eloquence, for my sharp brain.

8. Maybe you are becoming friends with somebody who has an impairment. Is it OK to ask when you know each other’s names? It depends. It’s OK to ask about what the other person can do or cannot, one can ask about other’s limitation. Example: you want to invite your friend who uses a chair into your home. There is one step into your house and a small bathroom. You should mention it to your friend and ask if that is going to be a problem. But asking about what happened and what the diagnosis is can be tricky. You should wait for your friend to tell you or you can ask once you know each other rather well. That is the general rule.

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4 Responses to Wheelchair etiquette for devotees

  1. ukwheeler says:

    1. Spot on!

    2. PLEASE don’t mention your granny is ‘in’ a wheelchair or, worse still, your granny was in a wheelchair – before she died. We really have heard it all before and we aren’t in the slightest bit interested. Another one to refrain from is saying that you used a chair for a few weeks after breaking your leg so you know what it’s like. Believe me, the wheelchair user is thinking you have NO idea what it’s like and will probably think you’re a jerk and will excuse himself as quick as is possible.

    3. Yep, we don’t need reminding we’re in a chair, we’re hardly likely to forget. One of my pet hates is when I’m out shopping and someone comes up to me and says they could do with a chair like that right now. It’s really condescending and shows a lack of understanding. I’ve heard it so many times I grit my teeth when someone says it and, if they happen to have caught me on a bad day, I’ve sometimes replied with “I could do with your legs right now”. It’s not very nice of me I know and I often regret it because I know that the person is just trying to be friendly – it’s just a shame they can’t do it in a more sensitive way.

    4. Squatting to eye level is a nice touch – and I’d probably prolong the conversation with you because I know how uncomfortable it must be for you 😉 Seriously, it really is much nicer if you can sit or squat because it shows you’re using a little thought and I’d be much happier to chat for longer.

    5. There are times when I’d appreciate a little assistance when I’m out and about but most times I don’t need it. As was said above, observe the wheeler and see if he or she is struggling. We are quite adept at opening doors and I often open doors for older people or for mothers with pushchairs. However, some doors are very heavy and it can be difficult to hold them open and wheel through. I can manage hills reasonably well, but this might be the best opportunity to strike up a conversation. Sometimes they really are a struggle, so just come alongside the wheeler and ask if they would like some help. I’ve accepted help in this manner in the past and am happy to chat with the helper because it somehow seems more of a meaningful conversation than the “that looks comfortable” type of comment. Of course it might mean you have to spend all day waiting at the bottom of a hill in case a wheeler happens to pass but it will at least show your dedication 😉 Another good way of making contact is in a supermarket. It’s just impossible to reach items from the upper shelves so an offer of assistance would be appreciated and I often ask a passer by for help. Any conversation would be brief but you could always follow it by keeping an eye on the wheeler and, after they’ve gone through the checkout, ask if they’d like help to carry their shopping back to their car. You could have a longer conversation as you’re helping to load their shopping into their car. I think the best situation would be to see someone sitting outside a cafe having a coffee and ask if an empty chair at their table is free. This gives an opportunity to strike up a longer, relaxed conversation that is quite normal and the wheeler would be at their ease because they’d feel equal.

    6. Arghh – the number of times someone has interfered with my chair. I’ve had people come up behind me and just started pushing me to ‘help'(it can be quite frightening), people have moved my chair – with me in it – in a pub if they want to pass, and I’ve had people who are having a conversation in a group in which I’m not a part of, just lean back and rest a hand on my chair. PLEASE, just don’t make contact with my chair whatsoever unless you’ve asked permission.

    7. Sums it up nicely. I don’t like been told I’m brave but I don’t mind being told I’m handsome. They’re both lies anyway 🙂

    8. All sound advice there. I wouldn’t ask another para how they got their injury so I wouldn’t expect an AB to ask me, although they do – all the time. You can ask how long I’ve used a wheelchair and I might offer an explanation but don’t press the topic if no explanation is forthcoming. My friends know my history but a lot of acquaintances don’t. I’m often tempted to make up some exotic story such as I was skydiving and my chute didn’t open, or I was climbing Mount Everest and I slipped, broke my back and had to be airlifted off. I suppose I should say that I asked someone in a wheelchair how they got their injury and they rammed my legs and said “like that”.

    At the end of the day, what’s important is that you show respect and common courtesy.

  2. PinkVan says:


    I loved reading your article and loved reading the comment. I am a devotee and i have been dating a wheelchair user for the past 18 months. I guess i am / was observant of all that was mentioned except for number 4 .

    I have struggled when i started dating becoz although i wanted to be with a wheelchair partner but it doesnt mean that it is the chair that attracts me. I am also attracted to dark haired men but that doesnt mean i will just see somneone coz they have dark hair. It is hard sometimes to be a devotee and get the others to understand that it is not the chair that attracts you to them. At the beginning and the end, you are attracted to the person not the chair.

    I think female devotees are more about emotions than devotee guys who are most of the time just attracted to the stump or the braces. I read a lot of personal ads where it specifically mentions a certain limp as a pereference.

  3. Gorjisev says:

    An excellent article, thoroughly enjoyed reading it, thankyou!

    I am a 58yr old woman, and an electric wheelchair user, and very interested in meeting Devotees!

  4. Easy G says:

    I am a Bisexual man with Spina Bifida who uses a wheel chair full time. Thank-you for posting the excellent advice above . You are just so right about so many things.

    One thing I would like to say , is that while many Disabled people have the wrong impression about Devotees, there are some of us who very much appreciate their attention and attraction to us. If a person is polite and non-creepy what is there not to like about someone thinking you are cute and sexy ?

    One thing which is very common in Disabled people ( or Handicapped , Crips, or Gimps, I don’t really care what you prefer to call me. I don’t like “Cripple” , except with a Devotee I am intimate with ,but that’s my little secret story lol), is that many of us lack confidence no matter how good we are at hiding that fact. Because of this , nothing is more attractive to me in a Devotee than confidence. I don’t care about looks one bit , but confidence in an Admirer really turns me on. So , If I may offer advice to Devotees , it would be , don’t be nervous chatting with a Crip , we are usually shy enough for two. When you get to know us ask ( politely of course) , the questions you really want to about us , how we see ourselves, how we do stuff, how our impairment affects us and our bodies.Don’t be afraid to say what you find attractive and sexy about us. You will find your directness inspires confidence in us , your interest will be appreciated and it makes it easier for us to talk openly. Good luck in finding the Disabled person of your dreams !