MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Wheelchair etiquette is something many have never been taught, but it’s simple information that is more important to know than ever to know.
In total, 3.3 million Americans use wheelchairs, and that number is expected to grow. WCCO talked with Chad Wilson, an expert on disability rights, who presented five simple but deeply important things to bear in mind.
Winter in Minnesota can be a nuisance for some and a danger for others. Wilson drove from Chanhassen to Minneapolis for WCCO’s interview on wheelchair etiquette and accessibility and, in real time, he made his point. He pointed out to our crew how he wasn’t able to park in a street space because the snow banks were too high for his ramp to extend.
“Every day I get to my office, I would have to cross the light rail tracks, and being a wheelchair user that can be scary. There were a few times I got stuck,” he said. “Thankfully people pushed me out of the way, nothing bad happened. Just goes to show how important clearing off the snow is.”
That’s true especially on the ramps. Wilson pointed out a few inches of piled snow.
“It looks like a little snow, you could step over that. But if I try to drive over it, I am probably gonna get stuck,” he said. “People really need to clean these corners … the access aisles are key.”
Wilson says he always figures it out, but life would be smoother if more people would clear a path in the winter and beyond.
“These steps, I think can help people with a disability not having to overthink it when they go out in the community. They’re already enough you have to think about so making it a little easier can go a long way,” he said.
For Wilson — a father, husband and attorney for the Disability Law Center — the mission is professional and it’s personal.
“I was diagnosed with Becker muscular dystrophy. Got my first wheelchair when I was about 14 years old and now that’s my primary,” he said.
That said, it’s a story he says shouldn’t have to explain, which brings us to his five tips.
Don’t Ask Why
“Its kinda strange. You meet someone for the first time and they come up to you and ask, ‘Why are you in a wheelchair?’ To me, that’s a pretty personal question to ask somebody you don’t know. For all you know it could be a difficult thing for them having to discuss.”
“There’s a lot of people out there who use terms like ‘wheelchair bound’ or kinda think of a wheelchair as a bad thing. It can be different for every person but, for me, I kind of think of a wheelchair as freeing.” Wilson says to call people wheelchair users. It’s not an identity, just a device.
Don’t Bend Down
Wilson says unless there is a hearing issue, never squat to address someone using a wheelchair.
“My suggestion to people is if you want to make a wheelchair user more comfortable, is that maybe that person takes a step back. And if that conversation is gonna go longer, then find a seat, so you’re on that eye level. But the bending down, feels like somebody’s talking to a child or something.”
Wilson says always ask before assisting, and hands off unless you have permission. He says to think of the wheelchair as an extension of someone’s body.
“Pretty often, you’ll have someone you’re just meeting lean on your wheelchair.”
Just Act Normal
“Talk to them like you would anybody else. Others being overly familiar, giving you nicknames, calling you ‘Bud’ or something — to me it jumps out right away that I am being treated differently because I use a wheelchair, because I have a type of disability. As a wheelchair user you’ll get a lot of ‘Slow down, Speedy,’ or ‘You’ll get a speeding ticket.’ Those jokes they are not really funny.”
The encouraging news is that these tips are simple.
“Yeah they are pretty simple. I think if you just think about them. I think if you think of them once, they’re pretty easy to apply,” Wilson said. “I think this is all about inclusion and doing this all together and making sure everyone feels welcome.”
Wilson, who has a service dog, says another key thing to remember is not to ask to pet a service dog; they are on the job.
He also says talk to your children about what wheelchairs are so they understand when they see them in public.