Every time I spend a couple days on wheels (AKA in my wheelchair, Snooki) I realize that the world is sadly lacking in basic wheelchair etiquette. Now, I’m not going to attempt to answer questions like, “Do I hold the door for someone in a wheelchair?” or “If they seem to be struggling, should I offer to help?” The truth is- I have no idea. We are as varied and different as the same number of able-bodied people, so how could I possibly know? (But, please, if you see me struggling with a door whether in a wheelchair or not, please help! I’m probably deciding if entering/ exiting is really worth dislocating my shoulder.) However, there are apparently a few things that need cleared up to make my (and others’) rolling days a little simpler and possibly less frustrating. Below you will find a few helpful hints about what not to do upon seeing someone in a wheelchair.
Hint #1- Do not touch the wheelchair user.
Just don’t do it. Unless you are shaking hands, giving a high five, or fist bumping . . . there’s just no reason to touch a person you do not know. Let’s think of it this way- You walk into a room. Everyone else is taller than you (Fun wheelchair fact- you’re stuck at butt height to all adults when you’re in a wheelchair. Lovely, just lovely.). Now everyone starts patting your head, bumping into your legs, and tickling your tummy (Yes, that has actually happened to me.). My guess is you would start feeling a little claustrophobic and ultimately disdained. It’s hard to feel as though you’re on equal footing with the rest of the adults of the world, when the other adults of the world treat you like a particularly ugly puppy.
Hint #2- Do not talk in funny voices to the wheelchair user.
Again, there are exceptions. For example, my voice is just funny, in general. (Oddly reminiscent of Velma from “Scooby Doo” . . .) That would not keep me from speaking to a person in a wheelchair, obviously. If a normal adult conversation necessitates using a funny voice, by all means, please do. We wheelchair riders (much like “normal” walking folk- *gasp*) enjoy a silly story. What I am talking about is using a voice that isn’t meant for adults with an adult simply because he or she is in a wheelchair. Case in point, while rolling into a football stadium with my husband, a security guard spoke to me in a (not at all impressive) Donald Duck voice. It some sort of- “Quackety-quack. I bet you’re not *quack-quack* sneaking anything in! Quack!” Now friends, tell me how that is EVER appropriate. I mean, it’s strange enough that he would assume that because I’m in a wheelchair I wouldn’t possibly think to sneak in contraband. (For the record, I was NOT sneaking in contraband though.) It’s even more strange that he used a duck voice with an adult. Again, it’s hard to feel like you’re not inferior to the walking world when the walking world is using baby talk to speak with you.
Hint #3- Do not attempt to diagnose the wheelchair user.
This is a tough one. To be entirely honest, before I became a part time Snooki user, I probably assumed that people in wheelchairs could not walk at all. I, on the contrary, go for walks in my neighborhood, walk to get my groceries, walk inside my house, but use a wheelchair for long distances or particularly unfortunate days health wise. I realize this is confusing, but I also realize this most certainly does not mean I am faking my need for the Snooks. Not long ago while using the wheelchair, I stood up to walk into the bathroom (because opening a bathroom door while trying propel myself through it will most certainly end in a dislocated shoulder). A young man 10-15 feet away said, “Oh my God! She can walk! She was just using a wheelchair, but she can actually walk.” This doesn’t make me angry; it’s not like he insisted I crawl to the bathroom. It’s just awkward. Yes, I can walk; the walk to the bathroom is perfectly manageable for me. It isn’t manageable for all people using a wheelchair. Much like some people who can walk long distances are capable of running a 5K and other aren’t. What frustrates me, though, is that people who are not using a wheelchair somehow feel qualified to comment on who should and should not use a wheelchair- as though being able to walk qualifies them for such assumptions. What if people in wheelchairs started calling out everyone with a limp or who stumbles? “Hey, hey you? You stumbled. You aren’t good at walking. I’m in a wheelchair, so I know this. You should be in a wheelchair too!” See what I mean? Being in a wheelchair does not make me qualified to diagnose a walker as incapable of walking, and being a walker does not make someone capable of diagnosing a wheelchair user as not needing the wheelchair.
Hint #4- Teach your children that people in wheelchairs are, um, people (who happen to use wheelchairs).
One of the most awkward moments I face in a wheelchair is when children are involved. You see, I don’t mind at all when a child says, “What’s wrong with you?” or “Why are you using a wheelchair?” I’m not going to give them a long, graphic response. I’m going to say, “Sometimes I can’t walk very far, and my wheelchair helps me to be able to go the places I can’t walk to. I named it ‘Snooki’.” That’s it. I get to encourage a child’s curiosity, and a child learns that someone who looks different isn’t something to fear. Everyone wins. But . . . when a child says, “What’s wrong with you?” and a parent/ guardian angrily shoos him/her away out of embarrassment, no one wins. You see, I’m left feeling like some sort of animal that the parent was afraid of provoking, and the child has learned that people who look different are something that makes parents uncomfortable- so they become uncomfortable too. Your child is more than welcome to ask nosey questions. If I don’t want to answer or think the answer is too much for them, I’ll ask you for help explaining. But I never, ever want a child to be afraid of me, because I’m different. It’s okay. Please let them be nosey; let them pry. It’s perfectly, perfectly fine.
This brings us to the final and most important point.
Hint #5- Look at the PERSON in the wheelchair- not the wheelchair.
Everyone one of us has something that makes us different. Even when I’m walking, I’m limping and stumbling along with dislocating hips and shifting kneecaps. There is always something that makes me self-conscious, and I think that makes me very, very human. See, that’s the thing. I sometimes feel a little like I’m step behind the rest of the adult world, because I’m using a wheelchair. But, if we could all sit down and talk, we would probably realize that we all have something that makes us feel that way. All I’m asking is to be treated like any other fellow human. When you’re meeting a fellow human in a wheelchair, don’t make assumptions about them. Talk to them just like anyone else, because we are as varied and unique as all the other people you will meet.
Finally, it took me a while to write the post- partially because Joe is researching for a new book about the subjugation of women throughout history, and he kept reading crazy and disturbing things aloud, but also because I was a little afraid. You see, I would rather you fail to follow ANY of my hints than for you to avoid me for fear of offending me. I’m guessing that most of my friends on wheels feel the same way. I’m not easily offended; I’m not even particularly sensitive about the wheelchair. If you say something completely offensive, I’m more likely to ask you to clarify or just to give you the benefit of the doubt than I am to walk away and meltdown. At absolute worst, I might make a joke. Recently, Joe was pushing me in Snooki, and we were attracting a lot of stares. Joe’s response was to yell, “Hodor! Hodor!” as he pushed me. (Game of Thrones fans, you’ll get the reference.) I will never try to make you feel bad or less than anyone else. I promise. All I’m asking is that all of us try to see each other as fellow humans- crazy, chronic illness humans or not.
Peace, love, and health friends.