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Not a Wheelchair User: 3 Reasons Why We Need Person-First Language

I might be out and about in the world somewhere, or maybe I’m across from you at a friends party. You might be intimidated to talk to me because of my wheelchair, so you are a little hesitant to approach me to say hello or introduce yourself. Maybe you’ve even done an internet search on how to interact with wheelchair users so that it isn’t awkward for them or yourself, also to ensure that you don’t accidentally insult them.

These are the top 3 suggestions I have learned through personal experience on how to interact with a person in use of a wheelchair, someone like myself, in my own online research.

  1. Make sure to make eye contact and to sit or bend down to the wheelchair user’s level.
  2. Don’t say “walk,” instead use “went” and other language that might be insensitive to a wheelchair user.
  3. Make sure when you are in a discussion involving a wheelchair user that you talk to the wheelchair user.

These are the tips out there that are meant to be helpful while engaging with a wheelchair user? Honestly, as a person who utilizes a wheelchair, I find these tips a little insulting. I want to advance the discussion about how this simple label can be harmful towards those who use wheelchairs, and why it’s important to put the person before the chair. Here are my top 3 reasons why to never treat people like a wheelchair user.

#1. I’m not a “them” or a “they.”

Right out of the gate, the term “wheelchair user” titles the user, or the person if you will, second. Having the wheelchair trump the person is labeling them by their object. My wheelchair shouldn’t be a reason to divide me from the rest of society because I don’t walk by suggesting I’m one of “them”. Further, I’m not “wheelchair Trish”, I am Trisha, a person who uses a wheelchair. We don’t say fork user, or hat user, or seat belt user. Instead, we say that that person uses a fork, or they use a seat belt. This is what is meant by person-first language.

I thought we were trying to create a unified human race. I thought we were all just people. We are still the same despite our differences. Blind to race, sex, class, wealth, religion, sexual preference, career status, interests, hair color, tattoos or not, credit score, style choices, disability, ability, waist size, and intelligence level.

#2. Because I am a person.

I utilize my wheelchair. My wheelchair isn’t utilizing me. The wheelchair is a tool, it’s my medical device, and it’s no different than a pair of eye glasses. Glasses help people see. Wheelchairs help people walk. If it helps, think of my wheelchair like you would your car or bicycle. I think of mine as my A.T.V. A wheelchair, though on s smaller scale, really is no different. Both a car and a wheelchair help a person get from point A to point B.

#3 I’m right here!

It seems a wheelchair is distracting enough. It’s even harder to remain a person with a wheelchair enveloping your whole identity. You wouldn’t think so but people tend to easily forget that there is a person who’s sitting in that wheelchair. A wheelchair is a thing, an object. It is funny how whether it was meant or not, how a person in a wheelchair will be treated like their wheelchair, instead of the human they are. For instance, we will make plans around the wheelchair, instead of making plans with the person. Although it is very valid the concerns of accessibility with a wheelchair, a person who uses one is again put second. Make plans with a person to do what they want to do, not just what their wheelchair can do. With all of the accessibilities and adaptions for people that use a wheelchair these days, there isn’t a limit on what we could be doing. It may be a little more difficult and require more planning, but it’s worth it to put the person first.

I am a person first and foremost. You are interacting with me, not my wheelchair. I’ve never questioned my ability to interact with anyone who is, say, sitting in an office chair or on a couch, so how come it’s so baffling to hang out with me because of my wheelchair?

Here’s my tip. Treat me like you would any other. Ask me how my day is, what my interests are, if we have the same taste in music. But don’t make it all about my wheelchair.