Why Do We Ignore People in Wheelchairs? 4 Tips to Engage Comfortably

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50Plus Today

Posted on

Jul 25, 2022

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Texas - Dallas, Collin, SE Denton & Rockwall Counties

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Same person, different abilities

This topic is very personal for me. My mother, who lived an extraordinarily active and healthy life until age 75, suddenly found herself using a wheelchair for mobility after a car accident. While driving one day, she experienced a mini-stroke and lost control of her car, hitting a large stone wall head on. Thankfully, she survived, but her recovery required months in the hospital, followed by years of rehabilitation.

Mom accepted her limitations with a usual positive attitude, but it wasn’t easy. She hated having to rely on others because, in the past, she was always the “helper”, not the person needing assistance. She learned to graciously accept help when needed, though she continued to do whatever she could on her own.

Life in a wheelchair was difficult for mom, but she coped well with her “new normal”. What bothered her more than her physical limitations was the way people looked at her once in the wheelchair. If they looked at her at all, that is. She was the same person, but treated very differently. Why do people make negative assumptions about people with disabilities?

Why are people uncomfortable around people using a wheelchair?

When out and about, I noticed strangers avoided making eye contact with Mom and looked over her head. If one of us happened to be nearby, they sometimes spoke to us…about her…as if she were invisible.

Occasionally someone spoke directly to her, but talked loudly and slowly as though she had a hearing impairment or possible dementia. Mom was sharper at her advanced age than most people 30 years younger. There was nothing wrong with her brain and she was not deaf. She simply could no longer walk easily.

At a wedding, I saw people looking at Mom with pity, something she did not want or need. Very few people other than immediate family took the time to sit down and keep her company.

I know people are sometimes uncomfortable with situations with which they are unfamiliar. Or perhaps they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing and unintentionally offending the other person. Plus, we are taught early on not to stare, so avoidance is often the knee-jerk reaction.  I get it. I just wish it were different.

So how do you treat someone in a wheelchair?

The best way to talk to someone in a wheelchair is to talk to them as you would anyone else. Ignore the disability and look at the person in front of you. Here are some basic tips that might help:

Speak directly to them

Do not ignore the person in the wheelchair and talk only to the able-bodied person with them. This behavior is frustrating to the individual in the wheelchair. Let them know you are interested in what they have to say.

Make eye contact

Don't look over their head, look at their eyes. If you expect the conversation to last more than a couple of minutes, pull over a chair so you can more easily converse eye to eye.

Do not touch the wheelchair

To a wheelchair user, the wheelchair is part of their personal space. Some consider it an extension of their body. Do not touch or move a person's wheelchair unless invited to do so.

Ask before you help

You might want to help if you observe someone with a disability experiencing difficulty, but always ask before helping. The person with the disability may want to try to do whatever they can on their own first, even if difficult for them. Most people prefer to try to be as independent as possible, and if it turns out they do need help, your assistance will likely be very much appreciated.

Challenging the negative disability stereotypes

Sadly, my mom passed away four years ago at age 83. As one of her caregivers, I learned a lot over the eight years she used a wheelchair. As a result of this experience, I became a passionate advocate for disability rights.

As the Publisher of 50PlusToday, an online senior lifestyle magazine, I have a platform where I can educate people about all aspects of aging, including accessibility. I work diligently to help people live their best lives as long as possible, as safely as possible. I also try to educate the general population about ways to be more inclusive. Below are some of my favorite articles from the 50PlusToday online magazine related to accessibility.

  • Want to Age in Place? How to Make Your Home Work Long Term
  • Let’s Call It “Visitability”
  • Kitchen Modifications To Make NOW (Before You Need Them!)
  • 8 Reasons Modern Bidets Are Becoming A Must-Have Bathroom Accessory: Do You Need One?
  • Four Most Commonly Googled Questions About Grab Bars
  • Looking for a Grab Bar That Doesn’t Look Like a Grab Bar?
  • Planning To Age in Place? Consider Universal Design Concepts
  • 6 Innovative Products/Services That Make Life Easier For Family Caregivers

Approximately 20 percent of the American population lives with some sort of disability, according to the latest US Census data. Statistically, about 10% live with a visible physical disability or some type of mobility impairment. More than three million people in the U.S. use a wheelchair full-time.

These are not small numbers! To effect change, we each need to do our small part to help make the world a better place for those who need a little extra help.

I challenge you to start today. When you next encounter a person in a wheelchair, stop and say hello. No need to even offer to help or comment on their situation; simply make eye contact and greet them as a regular person. Because they are a regular person. People with disabilities have full lives with interesting stories and experiences to share. The hardest part of disability is being ignored.

Try to see the person, not the disability.


Written by Leslie Farin, Publisher 50Plus-Today, Online Senior Lifestyle Magazine

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50PlusToday is a national online resource for accurate, meaningful and inspirational information for older adults and their families. We believe the 50PlusToday person is a very active individual. They want to take advantage of all the world has to offer and adopt a lifestyle that promotes a good quality of life. That being said, 50PlusToday also strives to provide reliable information about difficult issues you might be facing now or in the near future. Life is a journey; we are here to help and inspire you every step of the way. Our writers are experts in their fields and/or members of the 50Plus population themselves. We also promote businesses and fun events of all kinds that target active adults in our 50Plus Directory, and coordinate our own 50Plus educational and networking events as well. Our mission, in addition to becoming the go-to resource for everything 50Plus, is to create a supportive community for this vibrant and influential population. Please join us!