Disability Etiquette 101: What NOT to Say to Someone in a Wheelchair

Earlier this week, we addressed when it’s appropriate and how to ask a person with a disability whether they need assistance. But in addition to what you should say, there are a whole lot of things you shouldn’t say. Some of these things may seem obvious – but I have heard them time and time again.

Here are some things you should NOT say or do to someone in a wheelchair – under any circumstances.

  • Stop with the jokes. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard comments like, “Slow down or I am going to give you a speeding ticket.” I know no harm is meant, but this kind of humor is not appreciated.
  • Don’t compare. I don’t want to hear, “I was in a wheelchair once for two weeks, so I know what you are going through.” No. Just… no. No, you don’t. It is tough to even know what type of disability someone has just by looking at them, so comparing it to a short term condition you might have had is not proper. Again, I know no harm is meant – but just try to think about how it sounds to the person you are saying it to.
  • No need to squat. You do not need to lean down to get closer to someone in a wheelchair to have a conversation. It is completely appropriate for you to stand upright and talk to someone who is sitting in a wheelchair. Take the wheelchair away, and think of how many times you have had a conversation while you are standing up and the other person is sitting in an office chair. This is no different.
  • Um… hello? When a couple is out together and one is in a wheelchair and the other is not, please don’t take the person sitting in the wheelchair out of the equation and talk only to the person standing up.
  • Our partners are not “saints.” Please don’t think that a spouse or partner of someone in a wheelchair or with a disability is an “angel” or a “saint” for “being with a guy/girl in a wheelchair.” I am completely independent, and my wife is not my caregiver. There is a real difference. Plus, people are not looking for extra credit or recognition for loving someone who has a disability.
  • Seriously, stop the pity. Please don’t feel sorry for someone you meet with a disability, or assume that my life is terrible because something happened to me. I feel I live a great life; I just do it sitting down!
  • Don’t assume. Just because someone in a wheelchair somewhere had this issue or that issue does not mean everyone in a wheelchair does. For example, here is a conversation I had last week with a very well-meaning, but very misinformed person. After I answered her questions about my work schedule (full-time) and where I live (Northeast Philly), she followed it up with this gem: “Oh, that’s great. Does a special bus come and pick you up to drive you to work every day?” I smiled and just said, “No, I drive my car that I park in my driveway.” So don’t assume. Enough said.

Again, I want to reiterate that I know a majority of people don’t mean any harm – they just maybe don’t know what to say. But before you say or do something, I hope you will remember back to these tips to avoid offending or embarrassing.

For my fellow wheelchair users, anything else to add? What else should you NOT say to someone in a wheelchair?

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  • Jennifer Lynne Baker

    “You’re too pretty to be in a wheelchair!” Seriously – I’m cute and all, but disability is not imposed on just the ugly. I have my bad hair and sweat pant days too.

  • Jennifer Lynne Baker

    One more… (on the bathroom stall door), “Do you need help in there?” Me – Umm…that might be unsanitary and kinda awkward.

  • A Drake

    Ok, the assistance thing was helpful, this is just whining. EVERYONE gets stuff like this: tall people, short people, fat people, skinny people, people with accents, stunningly gorgeous people, everyone. No one likes it, we just learn to let it go. Suck it up.
    (and please don’t give me the “yeah, but this is different” crap.)

  • k9sue

    My pet peeves – people who make comments like: “oh that looks like fun”, yes, negotiating life in a wheelchair is a blast. “My legs are tired, can I have a ride?” – only if I can borrow your legs. “You have the right idea”, yes, i can walk, I am just lazy. I know they don’t realize how insensitive those comments are.

  • k9sue

    Not everyone – “normal” people don’t get jokes, just ones who stand out as different. That does not make it any better. ,There is nothing wrong with trying to be a litte more sensitive to everyone.

  • disqus_5YJGQjsBHD

    I’m sorry but this all sounds a little bitter. I can understand the ignorce of some of those comments. But in all actuality the common word really is ignorance. People just don’t know. It’s a not like people are seeking you out just to say those things out of malice. They might go home at the end of the day and go ” wow I really didn’t handle that well I hope I didn’t offend them”. A lot of people talking to someone in a wheelchair may not have ever met someone in your position. I myself being a caregiver have always treated everyone the same across the board but I will say I was a caregiver for a quadriplegic for over a year and the first month I probably said lots that was deemed offensive. But honestly my intentions weren’t to offend and I tried to be respectful. She was the first person I had ever met that was young and in a wheelchair. This whole writings really throws me off in the sense it really feels like you expect every person who is caught off guard to act in a proper way. This isn’t perfect world. People are curious and if they are making light of your situation or trying to relate they are just making conversation and they probably don’t realize what a life sentence to a wheelchair really is like. I’m not trying to be unkind here but this whole thing sounds extremely combative. Human error occurrs and it’s all on how we perceive it.

  • Raymond Smith

    I hate it when someone is wrong and you try to correct them and they say well at least I can walk or stand.