That Awkward Wheelchair Moment
Disability provides those it touches with many advantages—like increased strength of character, greater empathy, and a unique perspective, which people with disabilities bring to their jobs and their personal lives. One of the greatest advantages of being a wheelchair user, however, is the ability to find humor in awkward situations.
If you are a wheelchair user, the awkward moments are plentiful. You know the times when you lose a wheel down the street, get stuck in a snowbank, or watch the fear cross children’s faces when you approach. The list is endless! You can’t help but chuckle at the plentiful awkwardness that surrounds life from a wheelchair.
Check out some of the most awkward wheelchair moments below, and learn some strategies to help end the awkward next time you interact with someone with a disability.
That awkward moment when… strangers don’t stop staring.
Whether you have a disability or not, we’ve all felt it. Someone’s eyes that won’t stop following us. Often when you meet one’s gaze, they quickly look away. Now imagine, experiencing these awkward stares every time you go out into public, run an errand, or get out of you vehicle.
Strangers can’t seem to get enough of how fascinating it is to see someone with a wheelchair enter and exit their vehicle, especially when the wheelchair user is also the driver.
My husband and I (both wheelchair users) often catch fellow drivers in parking lots with hard, cold stares as we load and unload. More often than not, the scenario goes something like this:
Do they offer to help? Nope.
Do they look away when we stare back at them? Nope.
Do they react when we wave or smile in their direction? Nope.
Most strangers are frozen, stopped dead in their tracks with either fear, fascination, or disbelief. It is only when we pull out of the parking lot do they snap out of it. Awkward.
It’s just a wheelchair, people. Keep calm and move on.
That awkward moment when… coworkers occupy the handicapped stall.
Using the restroom at work can be an awkward enough situation. For many wheelchair users in the work place, the restroom typically offers one handicapped stall that is big enough to accommodate a wheelchair, at best.
More times than not, as a professional who uses a wheelchair, it is most ideal to wait for the handicapped stall to become available. I cannot count the times when I have waited in the entry of the restroom for that stall to open, only to meet the gaze of the coworker who emerges and apologizes profusely for occupying the stall. More awkward yet, meeting the gaze of the coworker who emerges, doesn’t say anything, and makes a beeline for the exit door.
That awkward moment when… you fall out of your wheelchair.
A wheelchair is innately designed to carry someone suspended atop of wheels. What could go wrong?
Well, a lot can and sometimes does go wrong. It can go really wrong when you actually fall out of the wheelchair that gives you the gift of mobility, often leaving you to your own creative devices to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and move on.
My favorite falling-out moment happened last winter. Living in Minnesota we do not lack snow or ice and my employer’s parking lot was filled with it as I was leaving work one evening.
With my heavy bag containing my laptop resting on my chair’s foot pedals, the front end was weighted down in the front. My front wheels of my chair hit a chunk of ice as I was going down the cutout from the sidewalk to the parking lot and the world spun into slow motion. Flipping head over heels, my chair flipped over top of me, spilling my laptop, the contents of my bag, and myself across the ground.
Thankfully no harm was done and I was fine. The embarrassment quickly turned into hysterical laughter. Sometimes you just have to laugh it off, pick yourself back up and keep on keeping on.
Do you ever feel uncomfortable interacting with someone with a disability?
That awkward moment when... people talk about you in third person.
People with disabilities are people first and their disability is only one part of them. Unfortunately, this can be difficult for those with limited disability experience to keep in mind and often results in others talking about people as though they are not in the room.
One of my mom’s friends would regularly visit when I was younger and still living at home. Instead of asking me about school or my friends or my hobbies, she would ask my mom, “does she like school this year? What is her favorite subject?” while I was present in the same room.
Avoid using third person with people with disabilities by:
Talking directly to them.
Do not talk to someone’s caregiver or friend or ask someone else what they think the person with the disability would like, need, etc.
Most people with disabilities can speak for themselves or will let you know the best way to communicate with them.
That awkward moment when… people speak veerrrry slooooowly.
Unfortunately people who use wheelchairs can often be mistaken to have lower intellectual ability or inability to communicate and will find that others speak to them as if they do not understand their own native language.
A quick way for wheelchair users to end that awkward situation is by speaking very slowly and loudly back to those who insist on speaking this way.
That awkward moment when… you get patted on the head.
Think about the following scenarios:
- Would you ever pat your boss on the head after a meeting as he sits behind his desk?
- Would you pat your mom on the head when she’s in her recliner watching TV?
- Would you greet your son or daughter’s teacher with a pat on the head during a parent-teacher conference?
If you answered "no" to any of the above questions, you should answer no to yourself if you ever have the urge to pat a wheelchair user on the head. Just. Don’t. Do. It.
There is possibly no more condescending a gesture than patting someone on the head, especially someone grown. Use the following chart to help you decide when patting on the head is appropriate.
Petting a dog
Patting a stranger on the head
Petting a cat
Patting an adult on the head
Offering a loving gesture to a small child
Patting someone using a wheelchair on the head
That awkward moment when… people go out of their way to avoid you.
Have you ever found yourself walking down a dark alley or seemingly unsafe part of town and quickly cross the street to a better lit area? Now imagine quickly crossing the street or stopping dead in your tracks and walking in the opposite direction because you see someone with a disability coming towards you. This happens more often than not.
People with disabilities don’t bite and wheelchair users aren’t contagious. End the awkward by sharing the sidewalk with them as you would with any other passer-by.
That awkward moment when… helpful intentions turn into catastrophes.
Unlike those who run away to avoid interacting with someone with a disability, at the other extreme end of the spectrum are those who just can’t help enough! Most wheelchair users have found themselves in the midst of a situation in which a Good Samaritan’s efforts have turned into awkward catastrophes.
Some real life examples:
While grocery shopping and merely browsing the freezer section, a fellow shopper, seemingly uncomfortable begins laughing nervously and shouts out “Do you need help?!” “Let me help you!” Browsing is not a call for help.
While loading my wheelchair into my car with my mechanical lift, passersby will often rush over and attempt to take the lift control right out of my hand exclaiming, “Let me do that for you!” Thank you for the offer, but I do this every day. Also, explaining how to use the lift will probably take longer than simply finishing what I am doing.
Don’t get me wrong – a helpful offer is a sweet and kind gesture, but if people with disabilities are not struggling or just going about a normal every day activity just as you would, they probably do not need help and will ask if they do.
How you can end the awkward
So next time you have the opportunity to interact with a wheelchair user, help end the awkward!
Some things you can do to help end those awkward wheelchair moments when you’re interacting with someone with a disability:
Don’t be worried about saying the wrong thing. Often we feel hypersensitive about the “right” and “wrong” ways to talk about someone with a disability so we avoid interacting all together. Don’t be afraid. Just be yourself and interact as you would with anyone else.
If someone with a wheelchair looks like they are struggling, it’s ok to offer help. But don’t rush in. Ask if you can offer a hand and what you can do to help. It’s ok if your offer is rejected.
Speak to someone in a wheelchair just like you would anyone else. You don’t need to speak louder or slower.
Don’t make assumptions about what someone in a disability can/can’t do or can/can’t understand. Introduce yourself and get to know them.
If there are regular stalls available in the restroom, use them first. Only use the handicapped stall in case of emergency if you do not need it.
Respect other’s privacy. It may tempting to ask someone with a disability lots of personal questions, but respect boundaries in the same way you would with someone without a disability.
If all else fails, realize that awkward moments are just a part of life. If your good intentions turn awkward, make the best of the situation, have a laugh, and don’t allow it to deter you from building meaningful relationships with people who may or may not have disabilities in the future.
Are you a wheelchair user who has awkward stories of your own? Share in the comments.
Are you someone without a disability who has had an awkward moment with a wheelchair user in the past? How did you handle it? Share your perspective in the comments!