Recently, there have been a lot of posts on my newsfeed about what not to say: to single people, to married people, to parents, to kids, and-most recently- to people who use wheelchairs/have disabilities. And all that awareness is good.
Person-first language is important and necessary. It’s generally good to be sensitive and tactful with what we say, because language reveals where our emphasis and values fall in the scheme of things. However, I am sure it can be challenging to know exactly what to say, if all you’re ever confronted with is a list of “noes”.
Photo by M. E. Smith
So, for my part, I’d like to help. Because it’s good to know what to do. And because I don’t feel like being negative today:
5 Things It’s Okay to Say to a Person Who Uses a Wheelchair [This Person, at least]:
1. It’s okay to say, “Can I [or may I] help you?”
This is a perfectly natural and normal question to ask anyone if you think they could use a hand. So there’s nothing wrong with offering to help a person who uses a wheelchair. In fact, offering is infinitely preferred to assuming that help is needed, thereby pushing my wheelchair or otherwise assisting me without asking. If I say no, I may need the exercise, the quiet time, or the opportunity to try to complete a task independently. But there are many times I accept help gratefully when offered.
2. It’s okay to say words like walk, run, stand, and so on:
You may invite me to go for a walk with you, to run to the store, to stand around and wait for something or someone with you. None of those phrases are offensive, none of them make me sad. It is precisely because I have a wheelchair that I can participate in the same activities you do. I don’t want to roll to the store with you, because a) that sounds deeply weird and b) it is no longer an activity we’re doing together. But a walk in the park with you? That sounds lovely.
3. It’s okay to say, “My child has a question for you.”:
Children are inquisitive, and some of the most fascinating conversations I have had about disability have been with children [like the school kids who told me that everyone should be able to play on the playground, or the little girl who thought I was a Transformer]. I welcome questions and interaction from children, even if they seem perplexed or intimidated by my wheelchair at first. Something as simple as “Why do you use that?” is an opportunity for me to help a child be more aware of disability and how it affects people. Not to mention it encourages a natural dialogue and helps to counter the Fear of Difference that kids sometimes struggle with.
[I would also encourage parents to think of age-appropriate ways to discuss disabilities with your children on your own time, in case you are in a setting where your child sees a person with a disability and is curious, but immediate conversation with a new person is impractical.]
4. It’s okay to say, “Excuse Me”:
Too often, I have unknowingly been in someone’s path, and that person has attempted to squeeze by, inadvertently bumping my chair [or worse: moving my chair without my permission: gross]. Beyond that, I have been apologized to for being in someone else’s way more times than I can count. It is perfectly fine to say, “Excuse me” if the need arises. In fact, it’s downright polite. Your mom will be proud.
5. It’s okay to say, “Hi.”:
Sometimes, when we see people different from us, we look right at them. It’s okay, it happens to the best of us. I’ve gotten caught staring myself a time or two, I’m sure. When I notice someone staring at me, I say, “Hi!” to break the ice. It [hopefully] snaps the person staring out of it, in a kind way.
So next time you see a person in a wheelchair, if you don’t know what to say, just try hi. It eases the tension, and you might brighten someone’s day.