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Your skin's crawling. You don't know what to do, the stranger in front of you doesn't know what to say. In the 'Politically Correct' climate of today it's so difficult to know how and when to interact with people who are different from us. I'd like to look at interaction between persons with and without visible disabilities. I'd like to start by expressing my appreciation for all those who have to encounter me, and appear to genuinely care about my wishes.
Let Me Tell You a Short Story
One day one of my wheelchair-using friends was pushing her way up a steep ramp. Suddenly an able-bodied person came up behind her and began pushing her chair without offering first. Disappointed, she waited until they were at the top, then she scolded him gently for a few moments. She asked him, 'How would you feel if you were climbing a hill, and someone suddenly picked you up and carried you?' The man looked troubled for a moment, then understood.
How does an able-bodied person know when to open a door, change direction to avoid a collision, or pick up the dropped belonging of a person with a disability? Simple: ask! Good intentions can seem condescending and disrespectful without the right etiquette to support your original intentions. My worst misunderstandings happen when people don't ask me what I need before offering assistance, requiring me to physically or verbally move the person out of my way if I didn't need assistance in the first place, or if I'm worried someone is about to be injured. Another challenge is when people ask, but begin helping before I've answered. I try to be as polite as possible when people do ask, but it doesn't always come out that way, and I must apologise for that. Everyone has bad days, even (gasp!) me.
Common Courtesy to Communicate
There are important reasons why you need to ask before assisting people with disabilities. First, it's common courtesy. Second, if you begin assisting in a situation and you're unaware the potential assistee doesn't need it, you could injure them or even yourself. For example, a common injury I get is when I open a non-electric door, and someone grabs the door without asking first. I cannot let go of the door quickly, and so my wrist is usually twisted or yanked painfully. This is also extremely important to remember when encountering people using canes or crutches.
Well what's the proper way to open a door for you? You ask me in exasperation.
Well, first it depends upon which way the door itself opens, and if it's manual or electronic. If it's electronic and you're ahead of me, push the button, go through quickly and don't bother with me, have a great day. If it's manual and it swings towards us, assuming I'm ahead of you, allow me to open the door and hand it to you, if I'm swinging it open don't grab it, you'll sprain my arm muscles. Once I've let go I'll push myself through. If it swings away from us, either let me push through - never reach over my head! - or go through, and hold the door if you want to until I've got it with my foot or hand. If I'm going through an electric door and there are other doors, for heaven's sake don't wait for me, you look silly!
The aforementioned situation my friend found herself in is one I have had to deal with on numerous occasions - and sadly, occasionally I wheel away injured. Often when someone pushes me without asking first, the sudden surge in speed shoves my fingers painfully into my brakes, scraping my fingertips or knuckles.
Well what's the correct way to ask if I can push you up a hill, without wanting to throw you in a lake? some of you might ask.
Again, simple: ask! Walk up beside me so that I can see you clearly, and ask. Take care not to make comments like That looks hard though, because I'll turn you down flat - no pun intended. I may like a push from time to time but comments such as these are inappropriate. Also, people who move to open doors for me in tight spaces risk getting their toes run over - and I'm not even trying to (wink). As for electronic doors, pushing the button before I can is not considered assistance. Occasionally, when I have hot coffee in my hand and someone does this, the doors open too soon and then close when I'm only half-way through, and I get a bit burned. Another challenge is when I've already pressed the door button, and begin to wait patiently for it to open wide enough to let me through. Some people are impatient and force the door open - this is very unhelpful. If the electronic door is forced often enough, the mechanism will eventually break, making the door useless to me and every wheelchair user in the area until a mechanic is notified and has time to fix it.
Elevators also a Concern
Amazing but true; people in wheelchairs collectively spend a great deal of time worrying about able-bodied people's feet. Although I play wheelchair games with my friends, I have no particular desire to crush a stranger's toes. Alas, it happens when a potential helper doesn't ask how they ought to open a door for me, and I can't really move past them. This also happens often with elevators. A common problem is that many doors are too narrow, and the would-be helper stands on the inside of the door and tries to beckon me in.
When talking to a person in a wheelchair, please do not bend down. This is highly upsetting. If you're an individual with hearing problems, pull up a chair and sit down next to the person instead. Lastly, many wheelchair users don't like to be patted on the head or anywhere else, but ask just to be sure.
Ask or Wait to be Asked
In a lot of other situations, it seems able-bodied people have difficulty watching me struggle slightly to get something done, or simply do it slower than they can. I understand your desire to help, but please don't rush me. If I insist on doing something myself, I'm trying to learn, but if I need assistance, I will ask someone. If a person in a wheelchair drops something, always ask if you may pick up the object. This is important when, for example, the object in question is a credit card - you wouldn't want to be accused of attempted theft.
In conclusion, if you've ever felt unappreciated, this was an attempt to say, Dagnabbit! You really are appreciated! Remember to communicate with the people around you, and you'll have a better understanding of how you can help.
This article has been published under the title 'Access Etiquette' in the Polaris newspaper at North Seattle Community College and in the Daily Evergreen at Washington State University. It has also won an award from the Washington Protection and Advocacy System.