I don’t necessarily agree with everything in this post because there are many many different opinions on this subject. Feel free to agree or disagree in a comment.
People use wheelchairs for many different reasons. Wheelchairs are enabling and mobilizing, like a car or a bicycle. If you’re interacting with wheelchair user for the first time, it can be difficult to know how to act. You don’t want to cross any boundaries or accidentally offend someone, but at the same time you want to be helpful and understanding. Here’s how to find a good balance. They are no different then you.
1 Avoid presumptions about a person’s physical abilities. Avoid presumptions about a person’s physical abilities. You don’t know what this person’s physical abilities are. Just because someone is in a wheelchair it does not mean that they are paralyzed or that they are incapable of taking a few steps. Some people only use a wheelchair because they cannot stand too long, or have a walking restriction problem. Many times, people who never use nor need a wheelchair rent them because too long a walk is extremely tiring, or they have a heart condition. Even if someone is paralyzed, that does not necessarily mean they are completely numb. Do not test whether a person is genuinely paralyzed. If you see a person in a wheelchair moving their legs or stand up, do not question their ability or disability, and try not to act surprised.
2 Greet a wheelchair user the same as you would anyone. Extend your hand, even if they have limited use of their hands or an artificial limb. Generally, it’s appropriate to offer to shake hands regardless of their condition.
3 Speak directly to the person who uses the wheelchair. If someone is accompanying that person (pushing the wheelchair, for example), do not talk to this companion about the person in the wheelchair; for example, “Will he/she be needing help with..?” to figure out how to help. That is incredibly rude and implies that the person using the wheelchair is not able to answer on his/her own. Always address him or her directly and respectfully. When you find that you are going to continue the conversation for a bit longer than you had thought, suggest you go somewhere where you can take a seat. If you can’t relocate to a seating area, then stand a few feet away, so that the person does not have to lift their head to look at you.
4 Don’t feel shy about using expressions like “running along” or “let’s go for a walk”. The phrases are figurative, not literal, and a wheelchair user understands that. It can be more uncomfortable if you blunder the conversation to avoid such phrases, because it shows that the wheelchair user’s condition is on your mind.
5 Keep your observations to yourself. Comments like “Oh, that zooms so fast!” or “Look out, there is a speed camera in that hall” or “I didn’t see you — does that have indicators?” are patronizing and belittling, only serving to make a mobility impaired person more not less ‘different’. Don’t notice the wheelchair unless you have a valid, direct question or comment. Would you make comments about speed if you were talking about someone’s legs? Do you feel the need to comment on someone’s glasses? See the wheelchair the same way as you see someone’s glasses — a sometimes irritating but nonetheless useful tool for doing what you want and need to do, and something that is no one’s business but the person using it.
6 Do not pat or touch the wheelchair user (or the wheelchair) unless you have their permission. Because they are ‘down low’ at the height of children, people seem to instinctively pat, touch or tap and for anyone with spinal or back problems, this may be painful; in addition, it is a gesture that can feel patronizing. The same goes for leaning on or touching the wheelchair itself.
7 Offer to help when appropriate. Knowing when to offer a helping hand can be tricky. Remember that because a person uses a wheelchair, this does not necessarily mean that he or she is in need of assistance. Usually he or she will prefer to remain independent, and is proud of the fact that he or she has learned to adapt well enough to remain so. If you see a situation where they could use your help, ask. Whatever you do, don’t move the wheelchair without permission. Even if they’re not using the wheelchair, moving it out of their reach without consulting them first is not a good idea.
Be prepared to hear “No”. Since many wheelchair users may have been treated condescendingly by strangers in the past, some might seem stand-offish or rude when you offer your assistance. Don’t let a rude come-back to your offer of help keep you from offering help to the next person you encounter. Don’t pass by a person you can see is struggling just to avoid your offer of help being denied. Some wheelchair users will also accept help on some occasions, but not others. For example, an offer to help push a wheelchair user up a ramp on a nice day may be declined, but that same offer may be accepted on a day that is excessively hot.
8 Learn the location of “accessible” ramps. Look for them in restrooms, elevators and telephones in a mall, in case you are asked or are giving directions. Never just assume, though, that a person in a wheelchair is not capable of finding out these locations by himself or herself. They know how to use a mall directory as well as you do. But, don’t assume that overcoming stairs is the only concern a mobility-impaired person will have; having to go 100 metres to avoid three stairs is often much more of a problem than navigating the three stairs (it’s not easy propelling a wheelchair, maneuvering a wheelchair past obstacles like people who stand and talk in the middle of a corridor, or walking on crutches). Ask “What’s the easiest way for you to do this?” Listen to and follow their instructions carefully.
9 Respect them even when you’re not interacting with them.Respect them even when you’re not interacting with them. Don’t be one of those people who makes life difficult for wheelchair users. You don’t want to meet someone in a wheelchair while you’re sitting in a handicapped seat or while your car is in a handicapped spot. The more you make it a habit to be cognizant of wheelchair users in everyday life, the more comfortable you’ll be when you’re face to face with someone who happens to use a wheelchair.(Yeah, we don’t all need those seats with the handicap sign but people with canes, walkers, crutches etc. do, and some of those people need to use the airport wheelchairs etc. that may be where they switch from the chair to the airport wheelchair, sometimes even blind people use the wheelchairs for a short moment because the stupid person who works for the airport etc. thinks it would be easier to get them to where they need to be. Get the picture?)
Try to be aware of the environment, even if you don’t think a person with a disability is in your area. Don’t use the accessible toilets as a broom closet, don’t put things in the middle of the hall or aisle, and don’t use or obstruct handicapped parking spots.
When shopping, be aware of scooter/wheelchair users — try to keep to one side or the other of an aisle, keep your children or companion(s) from walking alongside you abreast forming a wall, and try to not stop short, take a sudden turn or suddenly go backwards. Share the aisle, walk as you would drive, and be aware that wheelchair users don’t have brakes and don’t like being forced to say things like “Pardon, can I get past?”
10 Don’t compare a young wheelchair user to an elderly adult. “Hey! All you need is pearls and you and Grandma could be on a team…” is rude. Don’t do it.
Respect trained animals. People with physical disabilities might be using service animals. If so, remember that these animals are highly trained. Do not pet, feed or distract the dog in any way.
If you manage a restaurant, try to identify a booth and a table that are easily accessible to a person in a wheelchair and keep a wide path open to it.
When in conversation with someone in a chair, sit down yourself if possible. It is very tiring for that person to have to stare up at you. It is much easier to be eye to eye on the same level.
When in a conversation with a group of people, don’t stand in front of the person in the wheelchair. This blocks them out of the conversation and is very rude. Try to remember to open up a circle more to include the person in the wheelchair.
Never abandon a shopping cart in a parking space, especially in or near a designated handicapped space.
These instructions generally apply when interacting with anyone who’s using a device to assist with their mobility, such as a scooter. Treat a person with a mobility scooter as you would someone with a wheelchair. They are used for the same kind of reasons.
If you are hosting an event such as a wedding or party, check to see if it is accessible. Look at the site yourself and make sure that there are no barriers to getting in to the building, there is room for the chair to move through the facility, bathrooms are outfitted (room to turn around, sturdy handrails), and if it is an outdoor event, the ground or surfacing allows a wheelchair to move easily over it. Gravel, sand, soft or very uneven surfaces can present a challenge.
It’s not rude to ask your friend in a wheelchair to carry something. Many disabled people like to be able to reciprocate, so they may offer to carry your shopping bags since that’s easier for the person in the chair than the person walking. Accept gracefully.
When parking, avoid parking beside a van with a handicap license plate that appears to be away from other vehicles. The handicap van occupant may need the empty space next to the van to deploy their ramp when they return to the vehicle. Not all designated handicap parking spaces have sufficient space beside them to accommodate the ramp which may require up to nine feet to deploy so sometimes it is necessary for ramp-equipped handicap vans to park far away from other cars to obtain the necessary space.
When shopping, don’t load your packages on the person in the wheelchair. This is very rude and may prevent the person in the wheelchair from enjoying their shopping trip.