Saturday, September 19, 2015

What You Need to Know About Pushing Someone's Wheelchair Without Permission

When I was nineteen, I traveled out of the country for the first time without my parents.  Once the plane landed, a man retrieved my wheelchair from where it had been stored during the flight.  I got in while he held it steady.  I buckled myself in, and before I had time to think or react, I felt myself being pushed - not by my sister or friends (who I had traveled with) but by a strange man I had never met.

I froze.

I couldn't speak.

This man spoke Spanish, and I had studied it all four years in high school.  I could understand much more than I could speak, but at that moment, my foreign language comprehension was stalled.  That is, until I heard the word salida.  I knew that meant "exit," and my panic increased.  We were headed for the doors, then outside and then, who knew where?

Luckily one of the girls I was traveling with also had a passing understanding of Spanish and caught the word, too, insisting "No salida!  No!"

This was not the first time I had been pushed without my consent, but it was the scariest. I have used a wheelchair since I was around seven years old.  Recently, I found myself a part of a conversation about this very thing.  A mother and her daughter (in a wheelchair) were at a store.  Mom was checking out at the counter, while her daughter took her time on her way to the front, looking at things in the aisles.  Moments later, her daughter appeared, being pushed by a woman neither of them knew.  Mom saw her daughter's frustrated expression and asked, "Did she ask you to push her?"  The woman responded: "No.  I just helped her, and brought her to you."

While most of the people who chimed in regarding this discussion recognized how wrong it was, a few did not.  The fact that the random woman was "helping" a school age child who did not need help or ask for it did not seem to matter.  What did matter?  The random woman's feelings.  She was only trying to help, after all, and she meant well.  Mom should have introduced the child to the stranger who pushed her without consent.  Mom missed an opportunity to educate.  The child should have been grateful.  Polite.  Should have said thank you.

I was even told that if we (disabled people) do not educate non-disabled people, how are they supposed to know it's not okay to push a person against their will?

So, non-disabled people who need a tutorial, here's a clever acronym for you to remember.  Whenever you see an unfamiliar child, teenager or adult in a wheelchair during your day-to-day life, and decide that we need your help:  STOP.

S - Stop
This is a pretty simple step.  Just stop, before you rush to our aid.

T - Think
Our wheelchairs are an extension of our physical bodies.  (In essence, our wheelchairs function as our legs.)  By rushing over, grabbing our chairs and starting to push us, it's as if you are physically picking up a non-disabled child, teenager or adult you don't know, and carrying them to where you assume they need to go.  Sounds pretty rude, right?  Pretty invasive?  It is.  It's jarring.  It's frightening.  Frankly, it's violating.  There's a good reason you don't see strangers physically transporting each other in this way - without warning, and without waiting for consent.

O - Offer Help
Come around, so you can see our faces, and say something like, "Do you need a push?"  This gives us the dignity and the opportunity to either accept your help, or turn it down.  (If we say or indicate "no", accept that and move on.  Don't insist on helping us.)

P - Push Only If You See/Hear Consent
If, and only if you see or hear consent, you are welcome to push us.  There is no reason for 3-year-olds or 6-year-olds to not have handlebars installed on their chairs just to dissuade eager pushers.  It's ridiculously unnecessary to suggest a 10-year-old should have a sign on the back of their chair declaring them independent, or insisting they will ask if they need help.  Just like there is no reason a 19-year-old should be pushed toward the exit of an airport in a foreign country without consent.  Being in control of our bodies and where we go is a basic human right.

Disabled friends, can you relate?  Have you ever been pushed without permission by a stranger?  How did it make you feel?  Sound off in the comments.


  1. Being pushed by a stranger is scary. I've not had it happen much, when I use my manual wheelchair I usually have someone with me so there's not much opportunity. When it has happened it's usually in a shop and my friend/family member/PA has stepped away to get or look at something - it's scary and disorienting. With this scenario, more often than not they are moving me out of the way like an inanimate object rather than actually trying to help me.

    It happens quite often in my electric wheelchair though. That is just confusing as they can see that it's not being manually powered. With this I just stop and let the magnetic breaks come on, no chance of moving me then.

  2. Becca, It IS really scary! How rude of other people and unnerving for you to have people move you to the side like an object. Also, I'm shocked to hear that people attempt to move your electric wheelchair, too! Do they just grab the joystick? (Because those chairs are super heavy!) Good call setting the breaks. Don't be afraid to do the same with your manual chair, too. (Though I know it can be really intimidating to do anything of the sort when you are being handled like that :/ Good to hear from you!