People in Wheelchairs: Their Pet Peeves and Issues
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.
© 2013 Carola Finch