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Disability Etiquette Part III: Wheelchairs and Mobility Devices

In Disability Etiquette Part II, we identified exceptions to the basic principle of person-first language in disability etiquette. Continuing, we cover mobility limitations.

People who have mobility impairments may use a wheelchair, or an assistive mobility device, or neither. When accompanying them, pay special attention to the pace at which you walk and to the environmental space needed for safe and comfortable activity.

People Who Use Wheelchairs: A fundamental principle is that for people who use wheelchairs, the wheelchair is part of their personal space.

  • Don’t touch the chair, lean on or reach over it; don’t ask to put a coat or package in the person’s lap.  (If this is a friend or family member, you may have a different agreement.)
  • Ask first if the individual wants help, and then wait for specific instructions. If you push the chair without warning or try to help the person maneuver steps, you’re liable to dump them from the chair or may end up detaching a piece of the chair.
  • Open doors and hold them open as you would for anyone.
  • Be prepared to offer to reach items from high shelves, or to push out-of reach buttons on vending machines.
  • If having a conversation, position yourself so that the two of you can easily make eye contact; perhaps pull up a chair, or, if standing, step back a few steps.

People Who Have Other Mobility Limitations: People who use canes, crutches, walkers or similar adaptive devices need their arms to maintain their balance.

  • Never grab the person’s arm(s) but do give them the extra personal space that they may need to use their adaptive equipment. Some people who use crutches, for example, employ a swing-through gait that may require extra space.
  • Open doors before he or she gets to a doorway. When going through doorways, some people may lean on the door for support, so if you push the door open for them from behind or unexpectedly, you may cause them to fall.
  • For anyone with limited mobility, having a clear path is important. If you see trash bins, boxes or other obstacles, move these aside if you can.
  • If you are accompanying an individual who uses a mobility device, ask if he or she would like help with carrying extra items.
  • Consider your pace, if walking. People who use mobility devices often walk more slowly.
  • People with mobility impairments may have difficulty with bending and/or reaching. Keep that in mind when transporting the person in a vehicle; be prepared to offer assistance if he or she drops something on the ground.
  • Make seating available to avoid prolonged standing. Be aware, chairs with arms and with higher seats are often easier for people to use.
  • Do not take their assistive device and position it beyond their reach (as you might be inclined to do at restaurant or movie theater).  Ask how you might help if it appears that they can’t find a place to put the device down.

This information is not intended to be comprehensive. If you’d like to read more about disability culture, check out this list of disability-related blog resources as well as this magazines and periodicals list.

Barbara Borg, Customer & Community Services Coordinator

Barb-Borg