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Tips on how to help people using wheelchairs

There is a saying “when a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” This is exactly what this article is about. We want to give a few guidelines on how to help people with mobility impairments and wheelchair users. Many employers and employees are unaware that what they say and what they do around people with disabilities, can affect their inclusion, or merely make them feel discomfort. Another reason for people to feel uncomfortable around wheelchair users is simply because of a lack of knowledge on how to communicate or assist.

For example, to sit down when talking to someone in a wheelchair is not something you think of while busy communicating, but if you knew that it will be uncomfortable or might stiffen the wheelchair user’s neck, you will be more attentive. Here are some tips to take into consideration when communicating with people using wheelchairs:

  • Gestures such as offering a handshake even if the person has very limited use of their arms and hands is good.
  • When speaking to a wheelchair user, sit or lower yourself so that you are on their eye level – it will avoid the wheelchair user’s neck getting stiff.
  • Make eye contact and speak directly to the person using a wheelchair. Do not stare at the wheelchair.
  • Don’t slap a wheelchair user on the back or thigh. It can cause a loss of balance, or trigger spasms and can lead to them falling out of their wheelchair.
  • No need to be sensitive about using word like ‘walking’ or ‘running’. They also use those words.
  • When that person has a caregiver, make sure to talk directly with them, and not to the caregiver as if they can’t understand.

Personal space is also very important to wheelchair users. Did you know, for example, that you should never push a person’s wheelchair without their consent? The wheelchair is an extension of that person’s personal space. So it is an absolute no-no to lean over and especially hang personal items such as bags or coats on the wheelchair. This is a sign of rudeness.

Parking is another age old issue. You might think you will just quickly pop into the shop, or even recon no one ever stops there, when in fact if a wheelchair user does arrive this is the only spot they can park in that gives them accessibility to get their wheelchair in and out and to be closer for those that can’t push far. Respect this parking spot.

The last thing anyone with a disability wants is to feel excluded or dependant. Always place items well in their reach and when you want to offer your help, always ask the person first if they need or want your assistance. When they do accept your help, don’t just do, ask how they would like to be helped.

The Mindspa Institute offers a training course called Disability Awareness and Sensitivity Training which will enable your staff to have a better understanding of the variety of disabilities they may encounter and how to deal with this in a sensitive, practical manner. It will help them to overcome the natural fear we may have when we interact with a disabled person and give tips on awareness and etiquette in these situations.

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” –Helen Keller


A Guide to Employing People with Disabilities by HWSETA