Monday, May 7, 2012

Wheelchair Etiquette

 . . . or How to Win Friends and Influence People on wheels
by Bruce Mumford

Acceptance and facilities for wheelchairs have improved quite a bit over recent years (with still quite a way to go, of course), but we wheelchair users need to remember that we have responsibilities too.

You might find it weird and sometimes annoying to see all these people flitting about willfully on two legs when you can’t even get up out of a chair- but remember they see you as a bit different. And there’s more of them.

So here’s some tips that may make it easier for people to relate to us when we’re out in public: and like it or not, when you’re in a wheelchair you’re on display.

That’s relatively easy for me because I used to be a performer and a Drama teacher.  I’ve grown used to the fear of going on stage and having to cope with tremendous stuff-ups in public.  But even if you don’t have that background, I think you’ll find things a lot more pleasant if you use a few of these skills.  They’re not actually that hard to do either.

But before we start and you begin thinking that I’m being a bit holier-than-thou, let me point out that they come mainly from experience.  I’ve made every one of these mistakes and a lot more.  Do I now follow my own advice? Only occasionally.

Because, as my wife will testify, my memory rarely has a direct relationship with my great thoughts of 5 minutes ago!

How we look when going out is very important.  I know all too well how difficult and time-consuming  it can be to get dressed in ‘normal’ clothes with buttons, belts, zippers and studs etc, but there are shortcuts (Velcro is a wonderful invention) and sometimes the timely organization of carers before leaving home can be as good as having your own dresser and make-up artist.   Cleanliness as well as presentation is important so don’t forget to make use of your wheelchair- height mirror.  These comments apply to the looks of your chair as well as yourself.  I’d be wary of too many stickers and attachments, apart from a safety flag.  If you go out looking like a bit of a weirdo, expect to be treated like one!

 Figure 1: It might be comfortable- but not a good look for going out

 Figure 2: Bruce and Alex Traill of SPCIA attending the local Access Committee in more formal attire

Be pleasant to people you meet.  We’ve got a bit of a reputation for being grumpy and surly curmudgeons.  I’m sure part of this comes from the fact that a great deal of the conversation directed our way we’ve already heard a couple of thousand times before ; such as, “gee you’re looking we1l”  ”aren’t you lucky to have a chair to sit in whenever you want”, ”how’d you get like that?”,“ wow, you can really move in that thing”, “you’re so brave/clever/talented” ,”have you thought of trying this miracle cure/charm/religious cult/herb/drug/exercise/investment opportunity?”.   I could go on . . . and on.

People often assume that because we are in a wheelchair we must be mentally disabled as well and because they have to talk down to us they should speak to us like children.  To deal with this, my mother suggests letting them get to 5 silly comments and then to run them down- but wouldn’t suggest this approach myself.  What about focusing on their face and trying to link them to a movie character you know?  Next time you meet them in the street and think of Yoda you’re much more likely to smile than grimace.  And a lot of people you’ve never met will stare and then smile at you as they pass.  Just smile back knowing that if they did that to an able-bodied person they’d probably be taken in for questioning.

Be clear in asking for the help you need /don’t need.  As a friend put it “most people mean well; they just don’t know how they should help”.  If you don’t want any help, let people know early to save embarrassment later.  If you do need it, be specific.  Nearly everyone will be only too happy to help. (in fact I think being in a wheelchair is a great way to find out just how good most people are).

Be appreciative and grateful for the help people give us.  Be patient and accept their generosity graciously.  Don’t expect it or take it for granted.  We may need their help again sooner than we think!

Watch where you’re going.  Electric wheelchairs can be dangerous things.  Be aware of the dimensions, turning circle, responsiveness of your chair.  Try to drive in a predictable and direct path to the left of passing pedestrians, without changing direction too suddenly or going too fast.  People can have a nasty habit of swiftly striding out of shop doorways or heedlessly hopping from cars without expecting to bump into a wildly whizzing wheelchair.  When backing up always look behind you first (if turning your head’s out, a rear vision mirror is essential).  You don’t expect people to fall over you and most people don’t expect you to run over their toes.

 Figure 3:  Blocking an entrance while having a chat

 Figure 4: A better way to do it!
Make people aware of your presence.  Especially in crowded shopping centres or streets a flag is a good idea and so is regularly tooting your (invariably silly) horn or calling out to let people know of your presence, so they don’t back into you or come to a sudden stop ; that is, unless lap-dancing with strangers is your fetish.

Take care not only of people, but of their furniture, floors, walls and water-features.  Wheelchairs are much more damaging than people, as our house has found out to its cost.  I’ve caused more damage to the architraves, kick-boards and doors to our beautiful old house in the past ten years than several generations of families have done in the 140 years before!  Remember how you resented people not wiping their feet or being careless in your home?  I’ve also found it’s just not worth taking risks.  Both our bodies and our mobility devices are too costly to repair.  Be very careful with holes/bumps/gradients and in particular gutter lips.
Be careful where you stop to chat to people or look at things. In the middle of doorways/footpaths/roads are definitely places to avoid.  If it looks like you’ll be getting into a longer conversation with someone, see if you can find a convenient place where they can sit down and be at your level.  That way you’ll both feel more comfortable.

 Figure 5  "Why do you always stop in doorways!?"
In conclusion, we need to ask ourselves what we want when we are out on our wheelchairs or scooters.  Surely it’s to be treated as fellow human beings and to be helped when we need it.  To achieve this we need to be able to put others at ease, so that they are able to relate with us and are willing to help.  Perhaps we need to think a bit more sometimes about treating others the way we would like to be treated ourselves.

 Figure 6 The rest of the family don't appreciate me watching TV this way.

It’s beginning to sound like I’m thinking of developing a new Accessible Religion.  But lest I seem a bit like some fundamentalist hypocrite  I’d better stop absent-mindedly repeating a lot of those mistakes in my chair.  Both my body and my wheelchair’s damages attest to them a bit too clearly . . .

To get ideas for this article I’ve drawn information not only from my own mistakes, but also from a wide section of the able-bodied populace including family, friends, carers and health professionals, community transport drivers, accommodation providers and our local council’s Aging and Disability Officer.
Thanks to you all.


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