So everyone in the modern western world definitely has had or will have their “awkward first wheelchair encounter”. You know, that time you first met a wheelchair user, reach out for a hand shake and they can’t lift their hand; or having a wheeler pull up behind you in a queue and not knowing whether to give way; or the more common “accidental eye contact”. This could happen with any disabled person, wheelchair or not. Today I’ll be talking about what to do when it does happen. Even if you’ve already been through it, this will still be very useful.
Now trust me it’s inevitable, it will happen, I’ve had it happen several times, both before and after I myself became a wheeler (oh, and don’t call anyone in a wheelchair a “wheeler”. I’ll be using the term for simplicity today).
I’ll be very blunt, before my wheeler days, wheelchairs were synonymous to being crippled. I was never wilfully discriminatory but I definitely didn’t handle it well. My strategy was “since it’s rude to stare, just don’t look at all”. Only now do I realise what a horrible thing that was, because after willingly not looking at someone long enough, they become invisible. If people around me now did that, I’d be eternally lonely and almost never meet anyone new. Thankfully most aren’t as stupid as I was. So you might be thinking, “if I can’t stare at a wheeler and shouldn’t ignore them, how do I find the happy medium? Look at it this way, you don’t think twice when you see “normal” people in the street, so why should a wheeler be any different? Truthfully it comes down to your perception; you have to make a conscious effort to see wheelers as you see anyone else. It’s not easy because society has brainwashed us from childhood to “fear the unknown/unusual”. But just as this perception has been learned, it can be unlearned.
In a less passive situation; where you find yourself having to interact with a disabled person, wheeler or not, how do you avoid embarrassing or awkward situations? Well stop thinking within such a small bubble. You can embarrass yourself talking to anyone, you know that. So of course you could embarrass yourself talking to a disabled person. The solution is the same in both cases, we’re all human, don’t dwell on it. You accidently reach out to shake a blind person’s hand? They’re used to it, just put your hand away and continue your interaction. You bend over to talk to a wheeler and are now in an uncomfortable position? You’re probably the fifth person this week, and frankly you probably look kinda silly. Stand up straight, continue your interaction. You get tired of standing, suggest taking your conversation somewhere you can sit; the chair has wheels for a reason.
Frankly if the person you’re interacting with is uncomfortable with anything you’re doing, you will most likely get told. Stop over-thinking it. We experience these things all the time. Your little mishap will either be forgotten in minutes.
If you’re still curious about interacting with disabled people, a good source of info is Scope: a charity that champions equality for disabled persons. I found their website and youtube videos quite resourceful.
By the way, it should go without saying, the views expressed above are mine and derived from personal experience. I can’t possibly speak for every disabled person, I’m not Proffesor Xavier after all. I will however gladly give advice/my opinion on any related issue… if you require it 😀