Skip To Content

    I've Used A Wheelchair Since I Was 10 Years Old And Here Are The 12 Things You Shouldn't Do Around Me

    Ever think you're being nice, but in reality, you're making things worse? If the answer to that question is, or ever has been, "yes," keep reading.

    My name is Madeline Delp, and I am a full-time wheelchair user after a spinal cord injury at ten years-old.

    Madeline Delp / Via

    I was debilitated by fear and blocked out of participation opportunities, because of a lack of accessibility in my school and community.

    To break a pattern of self-doubt, depression and anxiety, I devised a plan: I was going to drive across the entire United States of America over a period of two months. This continental journey included base-jumping, rock-climbing and shark-swimming adventures, all to expose me to a new way of life and a better understanding of people’s assumptions about those with mobility challenges.

    Throughout my journey – and since then – I’ve met thousands of people. Through exposure, I hope to increase understanding and inclusion for the mobility disability community.

    Here are 12 things people with mobility disabilities wish you wouldn’t say or do to someone with a disability:

    1. Doing what you wouldn't normally say or do.


    This one is a great place to start: JUST BE NORMAL. Don’t get awkward or weird just because someone looks, acts or talks differently. The second you start changing your behaviour is when you open the door to being offensive.

    2. Use the word "crippled".


    Hopefully this one is self-explanatory. Still, I’ve heard it said about me before. And, my highly non-confrontational self almost punched a few guys in the crotch after they said it (hey, it’s eye-level for me!).

    3. Say something is accessible when it’s really not.

    20th Century Fox

    I cannot tell you the number of people who have said, “Oh, it’s totally accessible! It only has like four stairs". I’m never really sure why the number of stairs matter when my wheelchair can still handle... zero number of stairs.

    I recently had a friend invite me to the beach and she said that (other than the stairs) their beach house was "totally accessible". Long story short, because of a very inaccessible bathroom, I didn’t shower for a week.

    Design and development of accessibility accommodations still has major room for improvement. So, here’s my advice: Think of what life would be like in every aspect, getting around in a wheelchair or otherwise — and ask plenty of questions about what accessibility means to your friends, coworkers or family before giving your stamp of approval.

    4. Park in the lines of a wheelchair accessible parking spot — and the obvious, parking in an accessible spot if you don’t need it!

    Bravo TV

    I was recently stuck at the mall for an hour, because someone parked their car in the clearly marked access aisle next to my accessible SUV. I have a ramp that comes out the side of my vehicle, so if anyone blocks that space, I am completely unable to get back into my car.

    I am not alone: 75% of people with mobility disabilities believe they are not fairly accommodated in most aspects of society.

    So, please, please, please don’t park in the handicapped parking if you don’t need it. Totally uncool.

    5. Avoid ever asking about their disability because you feel uncomfortable about it.

    Canadian Broadcasting Company

    I had friends for years who never once asked why I used a wheelchair. It became offensive to me because I felt like they didn’t care about a very important piece of my life.

    This is a fine line. Don’t ask people out of morbid curiosity. But if you are becoming friends with someone, make sure you open the door for them to share their experience with you. For most people, it will mean a lot that you care enough to see the world from their perspective.

    6. Rush ahead or cut in front when they are moving a little slower.

    Warner Brothers

    There are situations where I don’t move quite as quickly as other people (hello, going up any hill like, ever). Still, it’s frustrating when friends run ahead and let you fall behind as you’re racing to catch up.

    Don’t let impatience get the best of you. It might even be good for you to see life’s not all about the rat race.

    7. Say the ever-popular, “You are inspirational”, when they are doing something simple, like going grocery shopping.

    Canadian Broadcasting Company

    Being called “inspirational” is a serious pet peeve among people with disabilities. If and when you are genuinely inspired by me or something I’ve done that motivates you — like maybe, I don’t know, the fact that I’ve driven across the entire country by myself or continue to deliver wheelchairs to people in need worldwide — then call me inspirational.

    But the blanket statement, pity-fueled, briefly-watched-me-wheel-around-in-the-dairy-aisle “you are inspirational” comment can be interpreted as demeaning. My stunning selection of shredded cheddar cheese at the supermarket isn’t the stuff of motivational podcasts (although, I do have great taste).

    8. Ask if they are able to have sex.


    First of all, this is really offensive after just meeting someone (and yes, my friends, complete strangers have asked me this).

    Second, sex looks different from person to person. The body is quite an amazing and inventive machine.

    9. Use the accessible stall in the bathroom if others are open.


    I am not ashamed to say that I have literally PEED MY PANTS (multiple times) because someone took a long time in the accessible stall when others were available. Many people with disabilities have bladders that are more spastic and need access to the bathroom quickly.

    So next time you see an open accessible stall that you’re about to snag? Don’t. Just picture me — Miss Wheelchair USA, the face of class and elegance — having to make an impromptu change of pants, simply because someone wanted a few extra feet of leg room for their oversized tote bags.

    10. Not invite them to things because you think they can’t do them.

    Red Table Talk

    Before saying, “He can’t go skiing because he’s blind and we probably shouldn’t mention the ski trip coming up" — ERRRR, think again.

    Go the extra mile and research activities the hotel and/or destination can provide – you might be surprised! There are many creative ways you can do things with a mobility disability (yes, there are blind-skiing instructors). And, even if they can’t participate, extending the invitation will make them feel like you care enough to find ways to include them.

    11. Push their wheelchair without asking first.


    For some reason, people feel like it’s okay to come up and push other people’s wheelchairs without saying anything first. I would never put my arms around someone’s waist and begin to push them forward suddenly, because: Personal space. If you don’t know someone well, it’s a good practice to get permission before totally invading their personal space and shoving them forward.

    Crazy story: When I was studying abroad in Germany, a man started pushing my wheelchair suddenly and even with me fighting against him, pushed me away from my group in downtown Berlin. My friend almost had to hit him to get him to stop. A bit more like an episode of Dateline than a friendly desire to be of assistance, if you ask me.

    12. And finally, underestimate what they are able to do.


    In an unexpected and interesting way, people with disabilities often venture out to do seemingly miraculous things!

    Like Erik Weihenmeyer, who climbed Mount Everest completely blind.

    Didrik Johnck

    Erik Weihenmayer ascends the steep Lhotse Face, just below Camp Three in 2001. This image was chosen for the Time magazine cover.

    Or Ralph Braun, who even with the inability to walk by the age of 15 due to Spinal Muscular Atrophy, was able to install a lift and hand steering controls in his old postal Jeep. This allowed him to drive independently for the first time in his life.

    BraunAbility / Via

    Oh, and he created the world’s first wheelchair lift, so that people everywhere with disabilities could drive, just like him.

    And even me.

    From skydiving in California...

    ...Or swimming with sharks in Florida...

    ...And starting my own nonprofit, Live Boundless, where I travel the world to deliver wheelchairs to those in need.

    And the kicker? Placing Top 10 and being named Miss Congeniality in the Miss NC USA Pageant!

    People with mobility disabilities are humans, just like you.

    In fact, many of us started life just like you and were dealt a surprise injury or diagnosis that required us to adapt. We all have challenges we have to face in one way or another, and it all boils down to your desire to thrive and succeed!

    If you are living with a mobility challenge, are a caregiver of someone with a mobility challenge or are interested in supporting the mobility disability community, join BraunAbility's Drive for Inclusion.

    BuzzFeed Daily

    Keep up with the latest daily buzz with the BuzzFeed Daily newsletter!

    Newsletter signup form