Top ten things not to say to a wheelchair user – ever. And then some tips.

After I commented on my friend’s blog in regard to vision, she suggested I apply the topic to wheelchair users. I’ve had a lot of things said or done to me because of my ever-present wheelchair, and some of them should never be said. Maybe you are curious, so here are the top ten things never to say to a person who uses a wheelchair.

#10 Don’t talk to me standing up if you can sit down unless you are trying to intimidate me. It won’t work, but it will make me angry. Sure, if you are serving in a restaurant where the patron would normally be seated, that’s different.

#9 “Do you have a license for that thing?” Enough with the comments about a driver’s license or about speeding.  We have all heard it many times. Maybe even already today. Instead say what you would say to a person who is walking by, “Have a nice afternoon.”

#8 “You drive!?!” Yes, I drive, quite well in fact. For the most part it’s no one’s business if I drive, and most people assume I do. If, for example, your new neighbor is a wheelie you might inquire about driving, asking if he/she will explain or show you how they drive. Most of us love to demonstrate.

#7 “Can you walk?” Unless you are the TSA or the gate agent in an airport, it’s none of your business if I can walk. If I could walk I would. Granted there are some wheelies who can walk short distances. But whose business is it anyway?

#6 “My grandmother had one of those.” Oh, did she? Do I look as old as your grandmother? The implication is that I’m old and feeble like your grandmother. For the record, before writing this I did a seated aerobics session.

#5 “What’s wrong with you?” Oh, most of us do hate that one. Quite frankly, nothing. There is a reason we use a wheelchair, but that reason is often in the distant past. It might take only seconds to damage the spinal cord, and then it’s over. After the initial damage, nothing is wrong. I have a family and a good quality of life. I just do it sitting down. When you think about it, that’s not so different.

#4 “How long have you been in a wheelchair?” Let’s see, I’d say about 30 minutes. Did you mean, ” How long have you been a wheelchair user?” I might tell you and I might not, depending on the circumstances. Are we becoming friends? Then it’s a natural question. Otherwise, if it isn’t intruding, perhaps, “You seem experienced.”

#3 “Here, I’ll help.” Most times I don’t need or want help. I function fairly well. I am grateful when someone asks, “Do you need assistance with that?” “Would you like me to help you?” So many times well meaning souls intervene and create a bigger problem. Politeness and courtesy are excellent guides.

#2 “I’ll push you.” NO. Please don’t do this. If I’m struggling up a hill, having someone ask might be nice, but then I can show them how do do it safely. I have to share this with you. When I was a newbie I was in the restroom on a college campus in Richmond, IN. I had conducted that for which I’d come and was washing my hands. A man emerged, said “Here, this will help,” as he grabbed the handles of my chair, picked the back up, and spun me around before departing as quickly as he’d emerged. I was now stuck and had to go back where I’d been, take the wheels off, and put things back the way they needed to be. From my next chair to this day, they have all have had handles that stay down and can be pushed up if needed.

#1 Here we go with the most insensitive and degrading words in the life of a wheelchair user. “Bound” and “confined.” Just writing those words raises my blood pressure. “After his accident he is confined to a wheelchair.” Why am I confined to a wheelchair? Did I make my lovely wife mad, and she is making me sit in the corner? Convicts are confined in prison. My wheelchair is my liberator. It is how I move, how I cook dinner, how I travel. Then there is the word bound. “He is wheelchair bound.” What? How? With duct tape? With rope? Butcher’s twine? Maybe a garden hose? It is the wrong word and has a demeaning connotation. Instead please use phrases like “uses a wheelchair” or “is a wheelchair user.”

img_2896So here I am in the park. (Balancing my trunk with my elbow on the picnic table and my hand on the seat.) Not bound, not confined, not even in my wheelchair. It’s a miracle! Actually it is. My custom fit, titanium wheelchair is a miracle of progress, a prosthetic body that serves me well.

Tips: I’ve been ripping up well intentioned people to make a point and maybe let off a bit of steam. Let’s focus on the positive and how we can work this together.

Thus far we’ve put responsibility on you, not me. I have responsibility, as well. Let’s talk about the responsibility the wheelchair user has, and it is significant. People do not know what to expect. Perhaps they have overestimated someone’s ability and been embarrassed. First, we need to direct our own show. We need to push ourselves, if we can, into the restaurant and up to the greeter. When asked how many, proclaim the number with a smile and with confidence. People who use wheelchairs have differing abilities. Show yours off in a positive light. Then there is posture. No one looks good with bad posture. Do your best. The same goes for clothing and hair. A clean, stylish appearance says more than anything. There are any number of websites and blogs that show how women and men can look nice on wheels. And please don’t take yourself too seriously. In a restaurant a young couple very kindly moved their chairs and their baby’s high chair, so my chair would fit through. I thanked them profusely and said, “I’m pretty wide.”

Thank you so much for stopping by. I have a good life with a loving, supportive family. Wheelchair users have some frustrating limitations but make the most of what we can do. Please comment or ask questions. Again, thanks.

Picture shows George sitting at a picnic table in the park. His body is turned sideways with feet on the ground. Elbow is resting on the table, and opposite hand is on the bench for balance. Posture is good. His wheelchair is not in view.


18 thoughts on “Top ten things not to say to a wheelchair user – ever. And then some tips.

  1. Even with handles down one person wanted to push me and proceeded to push me in the back to get moving!!!! Nearly pushed me out if the chair!!!! People are well meaning but I always say if I need help I will ask….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. On slight slopes my wife will give me just a boost by pushing on my back. I have decent trunk strength, for a paraplegic anyway. If someone shoved me in the back when I wasn’t expecting it, I’d likely go out of the chair.
    Once on a ship I was in the buffet and suddenly heard my handles click up. What????? No idea of who. I turned around and yelled, “No!”


  3. I’m sure my friends with visual impairments will appreciate this. It didn’t quite fit in the topic but is perhaps relevant now.
    It is very disconcerting to have someone approach and touch without warning. Most people don’t realize that a wheelie has no clue as to what is behind him/her. I think it has to do with the shoulders back and straight for a proper push and follow through.
    The wheelchair is a prosthetic body. When someone comes up behind and suddenly pushes the chair, you are suddenly moving and don’t know why.
    Sandy and I have this to a science. She can slip in behind me and begin pushing either my chair or a gentle nudge on my back, just like an automatic transmission adjusting to the terrain.

    Btw, Happy Saturday, my friends!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the education George. I would never want to insult or offend anybody even unintentionally. What one thinks is a help can actually end up being a hinder! Happy Saturday to you and enjoy the rest of your weekend. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh I think that would be fun. There’s an app for your smartphone where you can record, what you should do is when they say that funny or odd thing, whip out your smartphone, hit record and ask them to repeat it!! 😉


    1. Sandy and I have a demonstration about wheelchairs in which I zip around the room, and then she wraps a light rope around me. We explain the first is a person who uses a wheelchair, and the second is a person who is wheelchair bound.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Vicky – This is so well done and so helpful.. thank you so much for sharing!! I will dentliiefy credit you and link your blog when I make use of it (if I can – I’m hoping it will still work with CS3??)


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