Carola is a disability advocate with many years of experience working in the disability community. She is also a freelance writer.
We are supposed to be living in an enlightened age where everyone is treated equally, and special access and accommodation is available to people with disabilities. For many people who use wheelchairs because of mobility issues, however, our society still has a long way to go. This is in spite of increasing public awareness, which led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
Some people are just plain rude and ignorant. They stare, point, snigger and bully. Many people react to people with disabilities as if they are meeting someone from Mars. They mean well, but feel embarrassed and uncomfortable in the presence of someone in a wheelchair. They don’t know disability etiquette, committing faux pas that really irritate people who use wheelchairs.
Pet Peeves: Interpersonal Relationships
People who give them special treatment because of their disability. People with disabilities want to be treated like everyone else and not like heroes, “inspirations,” little kids, suffering victims, or objects of pity. They want to be respected as individuals and don’t want to be defined by their disability.
People who make assumptions about what people with disabilities can and cannot do and how they feel. It is OK to extend a hand for a handshake, for example, even if the person does not seem able to reciprocate. People may also assume that their conversation with wheelchair users is offensive when it is not. It is OK to say "let's go for a walk," for example. Expressions like these are in common usage and are not putting down people in wheelchairs.
Being treated as if they also have an intellectual disability. Many people are in wheelchairs due to spinal cord injuries, genetic conditions such as spina bifida, diseases such as multiple sclerosis, or other physical conditions that haven’t affected their cognitive abilities. One disabled man says that he hates it when people talk down to him, touch him, or pat him on the head. People with mobility issues could be a Stephen Hawking in the making for all we know.
Even if disabled adults do have some cognitive difficulties, they deserve to be treated with respect and not talked down to like they are children.
Being spoken of in the third person in their presence. People with mobility issues should have the opportunity to share in a conversation and speak their minds, even though a condition cerebral palsy may make it difficult for them to speak. People with disabilities should always be spoken to directly or included in a conversation. Having a conversation with others and referring to a disabled person next to you in the third person is not only rude – it is treating him like he is a non-person.
The speaker should make eye contact with the disabled person. A long conversation may feel more comfortable to eveyone if those standing sit down and maintain eye gaze at the same level with the disabled person. People need to speak directly to a person in a wheelchair in a normal tone of voice. Shouting will not help, even if the person also has hearing loss. Shouting distorts a speaker’s mouth, making it much harder to lipread.
Thanks to modern technology, some non-verbal disabled people can use alternate forms of communication through tablets, computers, or special boards.
People touching their wheelchairs. Wheelchairs are personal space that should not be touched or leaned on. One disabled person says he hates it when people fiddle with his joystick. Wheelchairs cost hundreds of dollars, while electric wheelchairs can cost thousands. These vehicles should be treated with respect.
People trying to help them without being asked. It is disrespectful when someone just grabs a disabled person’s wheelchair and starts pushing. This act can also put the disabled person in danger as they may lose their balance. People with mobility difficulties have the right to direct their own care. If they need help, they will ask for it..
Pet Peeves: Handicapped Parking
Cars without handicap stickers parked in handicapped parking spaces. The spaces are available to people with mobility challenges so that they don’t have to struggle to walk a long distance to a building entrance. The parking spaces are not there for the convenience of lazy, impatient shoppers.
My city posts signs that state that cars without handicap stickers will be prosecuted and offers a phone number to be used to report lawbreakers. When the number is called, a city representative asks for the caller’s name and a whole lot of personal information, which is sure to discourage anyone thinking about reporting the violators. Other municipalities may advise people to report violators to the police.
Some people have handicap stickers, but do not always appear to be disabled. One woman with multiple sclerosis (MS) says she gets judgmental looks from fellow shoppers when she walks out of her van while parked on a handicap spot. The problem is that her MS strikes her differently every day – sometimes she can walk, other times she needs to use crutches, and on bad days, a wheelchair. Sometimes people with mobility issues may also be able to use crutches or a walker for short distances.
Pet Peeves: Inaccessibility
Places that are labeled as “accessible” and really aren’t. Going to a new place can be scary for someone in a wheelchair because some companies, government agencies, and doctor’s offices have some strange ideas of what “accessible” means. Some buildings have ramps that look more like ski jumps with doors that open to the outside. One disabled man says he hates to be forced to leave his wheelchair to board a plane, and longs for the day that he can just wheel onto an airplane and buckle in his wheelchair into place.
The Department of Justice issues an online guide called ADA Standards of Accessible Design that has detailed standards and regulations about accommodation such as ramp specifications and door width. When in doubt, many organizations offer useful information online about various conditions.
Some disabled people also act as consultants or speakers about disability etiquette and disability education. In the end, people who use wheelchairs are the experts on what is best for them, and they are happy to answer questions, when necessary.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2013 Carola Finch
Tocksmom on February 09, 2019:
Thank you for the great article. I'd like to add one thing to the issue of invisible disabilities such as the woman who gets looks from people because she can walk when in fact she has MS and therefore may not be able to walk long distances.
I'm agoraphobic. I have a handicap sticker that i rarely use because I can generally find a spot close enough to the door of a store but there are times when I can't and on a bad day when my anxiety is high enough, just ducking into the store from my car in the handicap spots is all I can do or I just have to go home. I look completely physically fine.
I don't ever take the last one, for some reason even I feel my disability isn't as bad as other peoples so I want to make sure there is one available to someone physically disabled.
Sometimes I wish there was some sort of way people could see what was going on with me.
Mark Tulin from Santa Barbara, California on June 04, 2015:
Thanks for the informative hub. This could go a long way in educating people on wheelchair etiquette. Thumbs up!
Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on July 04, 2013:
Thank you for your comments.
Kate McBride from Donegal Ireland on July 04, 2013:
Voted this up and useful because there are so many practical guidelines in this hub as well as good insight into wheelchair users. Thanks for sharing this hub.
Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on June 04, 2013:
Robert, I don't deny that a few people may use their disabiity to their advantage, but your comment seems to insinuate that people with disabilities will toss their ideals out the window for the chance for attention. That is simply not true for most people with disabilities (including myself). A recent example are the protests held by disability groups for the way they felt children with muscular dystrophy were portrayed as pity objects during the Jerry Lewis telethon. Opportunities for people with disabilities to meet celebrities or get special attention are very rare. I personally don't like the idea of people being singled out just because of their disability because of the risk that they may be put on a pedestal or depicted as objects of pity. Sometimes a celebrity just uses the situation to make themselves look good. If a person with a disability is treated with respect and takes the opportunity to promote disability awareness, I am OK with it.
Robert on June 04, 2013:
"People with disabilities want to be treated like everyone else" except at fan conventions when it's a celebrity giving them special attention.
Jacob Long from Memphis, TN on May 22, 2013:
Some of this should be common sense, but I was especially intrigued about the idea of touching someone's wheelchair. After reading it, it makes perfect sense but I never would have thought of that. Great points.
Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on May 21, 2013:
Thanks for your comments. Denise, these days, people are so rude and impatient that I get the same treatment if I don't walk across the street at lightening speed. Doesn't matter that I am an exhausted cancer patient slowly crossing the street from the hospital!
Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on May 21, 2013:
I was with a gal in a wheelchair while crossing the street one day. She said that one of her pet peeves is the disrespect she receives when going across the street in her wheelchair. Motorists will honk or say demeaning things. She said that sometimes, it takes her more time to get across than the crosswalk allows, and that elicits comments from drivers.
Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on May 21, 2013:
You did a great job, by writing on a sensitive issue. Thoughtful and useful information. Thanks for sharing!
Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on May 20, 2013:
Thanks for your comment.
ologsinquito from USA on May 20, 2013:
Excellent and useful hub. Voted up.