Lexi Heer professional headshot

Disability Etiquette: Better Respect People with Disabilities

While googling “how to talk to someone in a wheelchair,” the searcher can’t help but feel a little shame. After all, people in wheelchairs are people first, and you should converse with them like you would any other person. But if you are someone who hasn’t had much experience with interacting with people with physical disabilities, it’s just as important to learn common disability etiquette as it would be to learn how to present yourself in a job interview, or when meeting a significant other’s parents for the first time.

Lexi Heer is a new BraunAbility team member and uses a power wheelchair for her personal mobility. We asked her: what are the most common social slights you’ve encountered and what would you consider proper disability etiquette?

Top 6 Disability Etiquette Do's and Don'ts

1. Address the person with a disability when talking to/about him or her.

Lexi said her treatment from strangers has changed as she’s grown up and become more independent, but she often will not be directly addressed if she is with a group of people.

“I know if I go with like my family to a restaurant, the host will ask my mom ‘What does she want to drink?’ And my mom will respond, ‘I don’t know; ask her,’” Lexi said. “People sometimes just assume that if you are in a wheelchair, you can’t speak for yourself.”

One important thing to remember is not to assume that because the person has one kind of disability it also mean's they have another kind. Physical disabilities can exist completely outside of mental disabilities and vice versa. Additionally, people can have a range of abilities even within the same injury or disease. The best thing to do is to let the person you are interacting with tell you if they need special accommodations.

Lexi is currently setting up a new schedule with new daytime and nighttime professional aides. When a new aide came to Lexi’s apartment, the aide exclaimed, “It’s so cold outside! Have you been out?” Lexi dryly responded, “Yeah, I work a full-time job.” Lexi has a BraunAbility wheelchair van that she drives independently to and from work. At the office, she works independently, like her peers. Assumptions about her – or anyone’s – level of ability is offensive and unnecessary.

2. Don’t touch anyone’s wheelchair without permission.

Bodily autonomy is sometimes a rarity when you have a physical disability. In some cases, the most intimate human actions must be performed with the help of an aide or caregiver. In all interactions, Lexi said the easiest thing to do is to think of her chair as part of her body. Using it to lean on, to carry things for you, or used as an additional support on public transportation like a subway or train – are all an invasion of privacy and security. Think about it: you wouldn’t hold someone’s arm or hand to steady yourself if you weren’t close to them. Use the same courtesy when interacting with wheelchairs and their owners.

3. Use terms and language they feel comfortable with.

Common idioms often refer to movements or abilities that your friend or acquaintance may not have. You may not even notice you are using them until it happens. Things like “a great step forward in our goals,” could be offensive to someone in a wheelchair, “falling on deaf ears,” to someone who is deaf, “Biting off more than you can chew,” to someone with a G-tube.

There is a divided audience on this: some people with disabilities insist these idioms are ableist and there is often a better way to say the same thing. Others say they are innocuous and don’t really notice them as they are said.

A similar theme surrounds the argument against and for person-first language verses diagnosis-first language. This means saying “a person with autism” as opposed to “an autistic person.” Person-first advocates say the phrasing focuses on who a person is instead of what a person has.

Lexi is many things: a woman, a college graduate, an athlete (a gold medalist in power soccer for Team USA!), and more – as well as being a wheelchair user. All these identities are important to her, and they shift in importance as her life changes.

“Right now, I guess I’d consider myself a young professional first,” Lexi said. “I don’t really care how people refer to me. If I refer to myself, I’m just ‘in a wheelchair.’”

While a disability can’t and shouldn’t be ignored – it is as much a part of the individual as their skin color or upbringing – by acknowledging the other identities as equal or more important than their mobility, we open ourselves up to more progressive conversations and open opportunities to find commonalities between us.

4. Shake his or her hand when first meeting them.

This is often the first test when meeting someone with a physical disability in a wheelchair: how do you converse with them and welcome them? When shaking hands, Lexi says, “Just go for it.” Going back to what we saw before: don’t make assumptions about their ability. While some people may have tight muscles in their hands or arms or muscle weakness that may make them unable to fully grasp your extended hand, make the effort.

Lexi recalls a time she met someone who was also in a power chair. “I went to shake his hand but didn’t realize he couldn’t move his arms,” she said. “Plus with our power chairs, I couldn’t even get close enough to reach his hand.” The comical interaction was blown over and conversation continued. Lexi left it up to the man to amend the shake – or in this case, inform her that he was unable to reciprocate – instead of avoiding physical contact.

Interviews for a new job position offer many opportunities for accommodating someone in a wheelchair beyond just shaking hands.

“Sometimes based on a resume, you can tell they are disabled,” said Lexi. “Like with mine, ‘power soccer’ would have been a giveaway. But I could tell some people didn’t take the time to look at what power soccer really meant.”

She said if the hiring manager had looked up power soccer, they would have learned that it is a popular sport for people who use power wheelchairs. Based on that, the manager would have known that Lexi would have needed wide doorways to accommodate her power chair, an elevator if the meeting were to be on another level outside of the ground floor, and a room that had enough empty space to navigate a power chair.

5. Plan ahead when going to events or occasions.

One of the nicest things you can do is plan ahead, says Lexi. It shows you were thinking about us.

“When going out to eat, calling ahead to make a reservation or make sure the staff is ready for us is really nice,” said Lexi. “It gives them a chance to get chairs out of the way so that we can be seated when we get there.”

She remembers a time at a previous job when coworkers went out for a happy hour at a local bar. When Lexi arrived, she saw that the only seating available was at the bar and at high-top tables. If the group had called ahead, they would have known the seating arrangement wouldn’t work for her chair and picked another venue.

6. Don’t offer too much help.

Sometimes well-meaning people can over-help. While in their eyes they are just being polite, to someone with a disability, it can come across as patronizing.  

“We know our abilities and boundaries,” said Lexi. “There’s really no need to move things for me or to watch me do things. I got it.”

Lexi went on to say that part of her job – or really the job of anyone in a wheelchair – is to help to educate others on their own personal limits. She said to think of it less as being an ambassador for everyone in a wheelchair or with a particular diagnosis, but rather as a “topic expert.”  

What Should You Never Do?

“Just don’t make assumptions,” said Lexi.

In making friends, hiring, dating, or working together, assuming someone can’t do something hinders progress and connection. Not sure if they have a job? Ask them what they do for a living or if they volunteer anywhere. Not sure if they have dietary restrictions? Ask them what kind of food they like and offer to go with them sometime.

What Should You Always Do? 

“Treat him or her like anyone else,” said Lexi.

It’s clear that some people are less comfortable knowing how to interact with someone with a disability or who is in a wheelchair. However, obstacles can be tackled as they come. The more often you interact with someone with a disability, the easier it becomes – just like meeting the parents or interviewing for a new job.