I’ve been in a wheelchair for 26 years, and it always amazes me that I get the same comments from strangers — whether on the street or at the bar.
1. "Can I have a ride?"
Other things along these lines include, “Do you want to race?” and “Slow down or get a speeding ticket.”
Don’t ask or make these comments. It’s not cute, funny, or clever and I guarantee it’s been asked a million times. Furthermore, please don’t then try to sit on the person’s lap. Believe it or not, this has happened.
2. “Do you hang out with a lot of people in wheelchairs?”
It's also frequently assumed that I date other people in wheelchairs. Both of these notions reduce a person's identity to their disability, and not to who they are outside of it.
While there are some instances (i.e., sports) that bring a lot of people in wheelchairs together, it is offensive overall to assume that this one commonality would be the basis for who people spend time with.
3. "Let me push you."
It’s thoughtful and helpful to offer this to someone, and I promise you, it’s appreciated. However, if you see a person in a wheelchair casually pushing themselves down the street or working out in a park, they are most likely perfectly fine. The assumption of the person needing help reminds them they’re different.
If you do offer, and the person declines, please do not get offended when they say no or begin pushing them anyway. Putting your hands on someone else without permission is never OK; assume that someone's wheelchair is a part of their personal space.
4. “Good for you,” or “You’re doing a great job.”
This usually happens when I’m out grocery shopping, working out, or even going to the movies. It implies that I’m doing something extraordinary simply for having a normal life. While well-intentioned, it’s demeaning and perpetuates the stereotype that disabled people wouldn’t have a normal life.
5. "Why are you in a wheelchair?"
This question is especially sensitive, and the resulting situation for all parties is always uncomfortable. Some people are in wheelchairs because of moments or events that might be painful to talk about. By asking them something that probably doesn't have a happy answer, you may be putting them in an uncomfortable situation.
Upon hearing how a person ended up in the wheelchair, the response is usually along the lines of "that sucks" or "sorry" followed by a long, awkward pause. Not fun for anyone.
There are some instances where this question is completely OK. For instance, if you're on a date or have become friends with a person and are curious, I think that it's a positive question that can open the door for a deeper connection.
6. “Can you have sex/kids?”
About four years ago I was at a work event and an industry colleague whom I had never met asked me mid-conversation if I was able to have children. The question took me by surprise, yet it has happened several times since then. And men ask me on the regular if I can have sex — or how I have sex.
A person’s reproductive and sexual abilities are always personal and it is never OK to ask them about it, unless you know them well.
7. “Watch out for the wheelchair.”
This one is tricky. It’s great to be helpful in situations where there are a lot of people, but calling out just the wheelchair takes the person out of the equation.
It’s nitpicky, but I always feel frustrated when people say, “the wheelchair.” I am a person in a wheelchair, and that’s what should be called out.
8. “Yes, we’re wheelchair accessible. There are just a few stairs.”
This is mostly for people who work at restaurants, event spaces, apartment buildings, stores, etc. I can’t tell you how often I get told something is wheelchair accessible, but that there are a few stairs.
If something has stairs, it is not wheelchair accessible. Just be honest and upfront with the information.
9. “Just keep praying. You’ll have a miracle.”
You'd be surprised how many people tell me to pray more, that I'll get better soon, or that I'll have a miracle. I have frequently been told that my situation will change if I just pray more, and it's hurtful in part because it implies I have a level of control over the situation. This comment comes from the heart, but it's embarrassing to be on the receiving end of it, especially when out with friends or family.
If you do want to pray for someone or wish they would pray, please do so silently.
10. *stares silently*
So this final one isn’t a comment but it has an equal impact. It’s not polite to stare at anyone, especially when they are just trying to go about their daily life, from being out with a significant other to getting in the car.
We all understand some curiosity, but please be aware that staring for long periods of time is off-putting.
OK, I know this is tricky and a lot of it can feel situation-based.
For instance, I’m almost never offended or taken aback when someone who has a family member with a disability comes over to ask me a question, and leads with that fact. But those questions or comments never include any of the above.
My final parting recommendation is to ask yourself: Would I be saying this if it were an able-bodied person?
If the answer is no, then please do not say it to a person in a wheelchair, especially if you don’t know them.