Rules of Engagement with a Wheelchair
Occasionally I hear a wheelie like me, or an upright concerned about a wheelie like me, complaining about the inconsiderate treatment they have received from members of the public. I must say that I have no such complaint to make. After sixteen years in a manual wheelchair it's hard for me to recall even one occasion when anyone has been anything other than friendly and considerate.
There are, however, some common mistakes uprights are inclined to make when trying to help wheelies. So here are a few tips for uprights who want to be helpful.
1. Before you help - ask. I find it more than somewhat disconcerting when someone comes up behind me and decides I need a bit of a push along. I'm suddenly wobbling out of control, unable to see what's going on behind me. I might be grateful for a helping hand up a hill or whatever (or might prefer to be independent), but please ask first.
2. When you push - use both hands. Pushing a wheelchair (or even nudging it along) with only one hand sends it skew-wiff. I find it difficult to explain that to someone behind me without sounding a bit precious, so I end up trying to compensate, which results in an awkward snake-like propulsion.
3. Treat a wheelies chair – like you treat him or her. A wheelie's chair becomes, in many ways, part of him. Putting your hand on my chair is much like putting it on my knee (which I can't feel either) or on my back (which I can't see either). So a touch or a lean might be welcome from one person, but not necessarily from another (I'm afraid it does make a difference whether you are a charming young nurse or a big hairy bikie). Think of a wheelies chair as his extended personality.
4. When you converse – sit. Wheelies get pains in the neck for many reasons (I know, I know, we are pains in the neck sometimes too). One reason is that we have to look up a lot to talk to uprights. So when you are engaged in a conversation of any length with a wheelie and there's a seat close by, pull it up and sit, so you can talk “on the level”, as the Masons say it. (But only if you can do so without too much fuss, I'd rather have a stiff neck than be the center of a family redecoration dispute).
5. When you know a wheelie well – ask him how he'd like to be treated. He or she might tell you the above rules are rubbish, because (as the mob told Brian in unison): "we are all individuals".