Tonight I saw an absolutely splendid performance of “Les Miserables” at the Civic Center. It was marred by an usher who was absolutely clueless—not to mention stupid and insensitive—as to how to relate to someone in a wheelchair, so let’s take this opportunity to have a little etiquette review on the subject.
The absolute best thing you can do when a person in a power wheelchair enters your space, whether it is a meeting room, a church sanctuary, a sports arena or any other place, is to (a) make eye contact; (b) give a little nod, and (c) smile. This communicates to the person in the wheelchair that you are friendly and ask-able then, if the person needs help, s/he will ask you for it. Other than that, do nothing. Treat the person in the wheelchair exactly the same way you would treat a person who is standing up.
You would be surprised by how many people are so uncomfortable with disability that they can’t even make eye contact—they look sideways, down-ways and skyward—but won’t look the wheelchair person in the eye, so it is really nice to catch that little smile and nod that says, “I’m here if you need help.” Under normal circumstances, we do not need help. If we did then we’d bring it with us. We are disabled, not stupid.
After the eye-contact-nod-smile thing, the only other thing you need to know about how to relate to a person in a wheelchair is summed up in three letters: A-S-K. If you want to know if we need help, ask us. Often we’ll just smile and say, “Thanks, but I’m doing okay.” Sometimes it will be apparent to everyone present that we’ve run into some situation we can’t handle and we’ll say, “Yes, please.” Then we will give you pretty specific instructions on what would be helpful. We’re experienced; we usually know how to explain what we need (excluding the possibility of a lost bushing).
Do not—ever—touch our chairs or our bodies without asking. You would not touch an able-bodied person; likewise, do not touch a disabled person. In our culture, the first physical contact that two strangers make is shaking hands. It doesn’t matter whether you’re sitting down or standing up—that should still be the first contact. Tonight the damned usher was all over me before the show, during the intermission and after the final curtain, patting my shoulder, stroking my arm and grabbing my hand. Keep your damn hands off me. Your touching is condescending and violates the integrity of my body. How would you like me to keep grabbing you?
Also, do not ever put your hands on my wheelchair. My wheelchair is not like your car. It is not something we both lean on while we suck on a couple of beers. My wheelchair is an extension of my body. Besides, if you lean on my wheelchair then you’re going to fall on the floor when I move. I was in Fellowship Hall after church service and somebody decided that it was convenient to lean on the back of my chair. I could not see or feel the person there, so when I moved my chair she fell down.
One of my first journeys out by myself in my wheelchair was to Wal-Mart. I was doing fine until I got to the cash register. The cashier told me the charge, I handed her some bills and then pulled out a fistful of change and was picking through it for the right coins when she reached over took the money out of my hand. Just because I can’t stand up very well or very long does not mean that I am an idiot. I am entirely competent to make change.
I clearly told the woman to keep her hands off my money, whereupon a man standing behind me in line decided to defend the woman and take me to task for pushing her back behind appropriate boundaries. The man should have minded his own damn business. It was between the cashier and me; now, I had to deal with him, too. Thanks a bunch, world; just keep piling it on. I wheeled home in tears.
One day, when I was still using a manual wheelchair, I was sitting in a hospital lobby across from the elevators, waiting for my friend to come down from visiting her father. The elevator doors opened—and some complete stranger came up behind me and pushed me onto the elevator. Do not do anything to me without asking first.
After I got my power wheelchair, I started attending a new church and every time I headed for the bathroom, an old lady usher would follow me. Don’t go there. If I need help, I will ask. If I don’t ask then leave me alone. Tonight the friggin’ usher kept hovering over me, asking, asking, asking, even after I had done everything I knew to assure her that I was competent to handle my own affairs, and did not appreciate her condescending, patronizing ways. I finally—when she was interfering with my enjoyment of the show—snapped at her to leave me alone. She immediately hot-footed it over to her coworker to complain about me.
One final note on what to do about someone in a power wheelchair on the road. The Dept. of Motor Vehicles web site has ten zillion rules, regulations and guidelines about proper street behavior for trucks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and skateboards: it does not say one single word about wheelchairs. None of us are given any guidance on how wheeled chairs should interact with other wheeled conveyances, so here’s the way it should work. My wheels are not a substitute for a car; they are a substitute for my feet, therefore, technically I am a pedestrian and pedestrians always have the right of way at intersections.
If I’m in the street then I always go first. That’s not a law; that’s just what I’ve learned to do because drivers don’t know what they’re supposed to do or what I’m apt to do so I figure the best thing I can do is get out of the way fast and then let the rest of you sort yourselves out.
And if I’m in the street then it is usually because the curb cuts or sidewalks are broken and unusable. I don’t want to be in traffic any more than you want me to be there, but would you please stop yelling and cursing me and go yell at the municipalities or property owners to fix the curb cuts and sidewalks so I can use them?
Thanks a bunch. See you around—with a nod and a smile.