Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Advice: Dos and Don'ts for Interacting With Someone In a Wheelchair

Are there any misconceptions I should avoid?

Yes, and thank you for asking this. (And if I can kind of expand on this to include general do’s and dont’s I hope you don’t mind…)

1) Always presume competence. Whether our wheelchair-use coincides with an intellectual disability or not, no one likes to be spoken to in a condescending manner. When speaking to someone in a wheelchair (because you may not know if this person has CP or not) always talk to us as you would anyone else. It’s likely we can understand you perfectly.
2) Address us when speaking, by name if possible. People often assume those of us in chairs cannot communicate and ask the people we’re with what we’d like at a restaurant, for example. Remember that we are people with our own opinions, likes and dislikes. Look at us in the eyes when we speak. Listen to what we say.
3) Accept “no” as a full sentence and respect it. Sometimes, we don’t need help. Even if it looks like we do, keep in mind that we know ourselves and our limitations. If we say no to your offer of help, please respect it and move on.
4) Ask if we need help before doing for us. “Can I help you with that?” as opposed to “Let me get that for you,” because it gives us a choice to decline. Likewise, if we say we need help, please don’t feel uncomfortable helping us. We appreciate help when it’s needed, especially when it’s natural.
5) For children with CP: In situations where we are extra vulnerable/were extra vulnerable as children (the hospital, for example) take time to introduce yourself to us before anything scary happens. Find out something about us. Our name. Something we like to do. Then, always tell us what you’re going to do before you do it. Give us control in any way you can. A huge part of having CP for me meant not having control over the amount of pain I experienced as a child. Let us choose ANYTHING. (“Do you want me to start with your right leg or your left leg?”/”Do you want to watch this TV show or that TV show as a distraction?”) Any amount of personal power means the world to us.
1) Touch us without permission (including our wheelchair, crutches, etc). Never assume we want or need to be pushed unless we ask you first, or give you permission. You pushing us without permission is like someone picking you up and carrying you bodily from one place to another, without asking if it was okay to touch you in the first place. Completely invasive. Never take away our wheelchair, crutches, etc, even as a “joke.” Never joke about tipping us over. Don’t let us go suddenly without warning.
2) Assume we exist solely to educate and/or inspire you. We are human beings, living our own lives. We don’t exist to be ogled or pitied. Respect us enough to let us carry on with our lives. Acknowledge us in the same way you would anyone else. Hold us to the same standards you would anyone else. Be your own inspiration. Take initiative and educate yourself. (Even if this means asking questions and letting us come to you! :)
3) Assume we want/need to be fixed or healed. This is such a common theme, especially on TV shows. If there IS a character in a chair, they often lament the loss of a life where they could walk, run, etc. This reaffirms the notion that the only way we as people have value is if we are able bodied. Being able bodied is not the be all and end all. I would love to see a character on TV or in a movie who was disabled and carried on with his or her life as usual, with that as a part of their identity and story and history, but not as the reason they feel sad all the time. Wheelchairs don’t confine us, they liberate us. Wheelchairs are awesome. So are crutches and walkers and canes. See them as the help they are to us, and see us as human beings not as the objects that help us move around.
4) Assume we are all the same. I’ve heard the sentiment expressed not just to me but to others as well, “You’re too pretty to be in a wheelchair.” That just does not make any sense and is, honestly, offensive. Why? Because we are not all the same. We are black, white, Asian, Native American, Latin, Pacific Islander, fat, thin, average, tall, short, gay, straight, genderqueer, trans, lesbian, male female, sloppy, neat, fashionable, comfortable, etc. There are as many different kinds of people with CP as there are without. There is no one size fits all in symptomology, experience or appearance.
5) Stand for an entire (long) conversation. While not always possible, especially in the case of a quick meeting, or in a rush, know that we appreciate being on the same physical level as the person we are talking to. When you stand at full height, we are probably at eye-level with your waist. When you can, sit to talk to us. If there is no chair and you want to be on eye-level with us, squat in front of us. Don’t bend over us from your full height, and don’t brace yourself on our chair.
BONUS: If you see us being discriminated against, or mistreated, please help us. Make it known that you are a safe person to talk to. If you are a parent, watch for signs of depression or a change in behavior in your child. Be their advocate. Be sure your child knows they can absolutely always say no if they are not comfortable with what someone is doing or saying. Even if that person is someone in a position of authority. And if they can’t speak up, make sure they know you’ll always be there to stand up for them to make sure they are treated fairly.