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.