How to interact with a disabled person who uses a wheelchair?

A disabled person on the beach with friends.

A British clergyman spent a day in a wheelchair pretending to be disabled. He reported that most people avoided him.

They didn’t want to know. Their eyes swiveled away and they passed me by as if I was not there.”

Do you find it difficult to be relaxed when you encounter someone in a wheelchair? 

Does embarrassment restrain your normal friendliness?

Or perhaps you feel that disabled people prefer to be left to themselves. Whatever the reason, it must be admitted that many have a problem here. What can be done?

To find out, let us talk with Tom, the man in the wheelchair. “It’s simple,” he says. “Don’t see the wheelchair—see me!”

So when you meet or visit a disabled person, there is no need to assume an awkward or unusual line of conversation. Be yourself.

Talk as you would with any other friend or acquaintance. He does not want his disability to intrude into every conversation.

He is interested in what is going on and enjoys exchanging news and thoughts with others. Many wheelchair people have limited opportunity to do that.

So they are pleased to have your company. Tom, who has been in a wheelchair for 27 years, says, 

I appreciate it when people say that they don’t think of me as disabled.” 

In other words, ‘I am glad when others see me, not the chair.’

The B.B.C. carried a radio series that emphasized the hurt that people unwittingly inflict upon the handicapped.

Commenting on this problem, Phil, who is a quadriplegic (disabled in arms and legs), was quite forthright:

I go to a restaurant with my wife, and the waiter asks her, ‘What would he like to eat?’ Or the theatre attendant asks, ‘Where would he like to sit?’—as if being in a wheelchair means I can’t speak. I suppose they reason that talking might put a strain on me. Even so, I find this offensive.”

On the same problem, Tom says: 

When a person is out in a wheelchair with someone in attendance, conversations with people encountered on the way are often at ‘stand-up’ level, and usually behind the chair. The seated one would like to be included. Naturally!”

Help that is appreciated


Limited mobility often keeps wheelchair people indoors more than is necessary or good for morale. 

A fine way to help, which also provides relief for the regular care-companion, is to invite the disabled person to come out with you on a guided tour.

This suggestion presupposes, of course, that your standard of care is acceptable. It calls for thought and understanding.

Do you know how to handle the chair at street curbs, for example?

Are you aware that it is dangerous and frightening to move the chair suddenly or unexpectedly? 

If travelling by car, do you know how to help your companion in and out?

Are you sure the car seat will be suitably comfortable? Do you know where there are accessible toilets?

What plans have you made to do more than just tour around?

What is of interest in the area?

Are descriptive brochures available? Forethought and planning will make the trip much more enjoyable for both of you.

Sometimes the disabled person does not want to leave the house, or even his bed. He may be depressed.

Why not try a little gentle persuasion if his care-companion agrees?

Be careful, however, to discern the cause of his reluctance. Is it really due to depression?

Or could it be fear of entrusting himself to you? If the latter, do not be offended.

Likely that will change as he gains confidence in you.

The fact remains, however, that in most cases it is good for wheelchair people to get out of doors regularly. 

Your warm offer to be his companion might just lift his low spirits.

Another problem for the disabled person is to know when to assert his independence and when to seek or accept help.

We all need help, yet no one likes to lose independence, to feel taken over. The disabled are especially sensitive about this.

What independence they have is precious. So we need to offer help, not thrust it upon them.

Phil tells of a person who showed a fine attitude at his place of work:

Just last week a new staff member demonstrated what I thought was a superb approach while I was introducing her to our office procedures and showing her around. After I had done all of this, she asked if she could say something personal and went on: ‘Well, I do not quite know what to do with respect to your wheelchair. Do you want me to give you a push as we are going round? Or would you rather I didn’t mention it? Do you want to ask for help when you need it? Or do you want me to offer help when I anticipate that you want it? Guide me. I just want to give whatever help you want.’” 

Phil’s comment was: 

I thought that approach was particularly mature and sensitive. As it is, I do not want to be pushed around the office, but if I was going a long way I would welcome it. I try to do the maximum I can for myself.”

Derrick, now confined to a wheel-bed, makes a similar observation: 

I do not seek help if I can do something for myself. Independence is a treasure, but so is the help of others because, among other things, it provides pleasant association.”

Positive Concern


“Disabled folk and those caring for them are often very independent,” says Tom

“Rather than inconvenience others, they will struggle on without asking for help. People sometimes say, ‘If you need anything, or any help, just let me know.’

That is appreciated, but even more is the offer that comes in a positive way: 

I shall be free for a couple of hours on Wednesday. I’ll come and do any jobs you want done.” 

A practical comment indeed! 

But when you offer to help, take care not to sound too casual, as though you had nothing to do anyway. Your visit is very important.

Not to be overlooked when thinking of the person in the wheelchair are the needs of the companion—often the spouse, sometimes a parent or other relative.

Speaking of his wife, Tom says: 

She is a virtual prisoner of my disability, as I am totally dependent on her for everything, day and night. Our enforced way of life denies us many of the activities and associations that others look upon as normal. I would like this love and devotion on the part of care-companions to be given full recognition.”

So when next you meet someone in a wheelchair, think of the effort that went into getting him there, bathed, neatly groomed and dressed.

A few warm words of encouragement to the companion would certainly be appreciated. 

And if an offer to relieve the friend for a few hours is possible, it may be very welcome.

Worthwhile work


High on the list of things that bring satisfaction to all of us is worthwhile work. 

One of the problems of the disabled is that employers, too, often focus on the wheelchair.

Naturally, they are concerned about competitive efficiency and extra insurance costs. 

Those who have accepted such difficulties, however, are frequently rewarded with conscientious and loyal service beyond normal.

Phil, who works on the administrative side of education, says: 

The offer of immediate reemployment was one of the vitally important components in my rehabilitation. Most of the time I am not aware of being in a wheelchair. I am only aware of the job in front of me. Today there are so many vital things to be done that there is no excuse just to sit and watch the wall.”


“Don’t Write Me Off”


When a disabled person says, “Don’t see the wheelchair—see me,” not only is he seeking recognition as an integral member of society but he is also saying, 

Don’t write me off. My intellect has not diminished, nor has my zest for life. I need help, but I also want to be useful, to do my bit.” 

So talk with him on that basis.

By giving, he will feel happier in receiving. Accept him as he is. Never refer to what he was or might have become, for he is not looking for pity.

He wants to be positive, to be a doer and a giver to the extent possible. Encourage him!

For fulfillment and satisfaction now, we must do with our might whatever our hands find to do—even in a wheelchair. That is the confident attitude of Tom, Phil, Derrick and many more.

When you meet people like these, just see and warmly respond to the person. Don’t even see the wheelchair.

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