10 Things Strangers Should Never Say To A Person In A Wheelchair


I’ve been in a wheelchair for 26 years, and it always amazes
me that I get the same comments from strangers — whether on
the street or at the bar.

I’ve been in a wheelchair for 26 years, and it always amazes me that I get the same comments from strangers — whether on the street or at the bar.

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Kristen Parisi

Most of the people that come up to me have good intentions
and probably don’t even realize they’re being offensive, but
the comments are off-putting nonetheless.

First and foremost, anything that calls attention to a
person’s disability or the fact they are not able-bodied is
ableist.
Like everyone else in New York City, I want to continue to be
treated with a mix of respect and indifference. So while this
is by no means an exhaustive list, here are some of the
things you really shouldn’t say to a stranger in a
wheelchair:

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1. “Can I
have a ride?”

Other things along these lines include, “do you want to race”
and “slow down or get a speeding ticket.”

Don’t ask or make these comments. It’s not cute, funny, or
clever and I guarantee it’s been asked a million times.
Furthermore, please don’t then try to sit on the person’s
lap. Believe it or not, this has happened.

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2. “Do you
hang out with a lot of people in wheelchairs?”

It’s also frequently assumed that I date other people in
wheelchairs. Both of these notions reduce a person’s identity
to their disability, and not to who they are outside of it.

While there are some instances (i.e.: sports) that bring a
lot of people in wheelchairs together, it is offensive
overall to assume that this one commonality would be the
basis for who people spend time with.

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3. “Let me
push you.”

It’s thoughtful and helpful to offer this to someone, and I
promise you, it’s appreciated. However, if you see a person
in a wheelchair casually pushing themselves down the street
or working out in a park, they are most likely perfectly
fine. The assumption of the person needing help reminds them
they’re different.

If you do offer, and the person declines, please do not get
offended when they say no or begin pushing them anyway.
Putting your hands on someone else without permission is
never OK; assume that someone’s wheelchair is a part of their
personal space.

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4. “Good
for you.” Or “You’re doing a great job.”

This usually happens when I’m out grocery shopping, working
out, or even going to the movies. It implies that I’m doing
something extraordinary simply for having a normal life.
While well-intentioned, it’s demeaning and perpetuates the
stereotype that disabled people wouldn’t have a normal life.

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5. “Why are
you in a wheelchair?”

This question is especially sensitive, and the resulting
situation for all parties is always uncomfortable. Some
people are in wheelchairs because of moments or events that
might be painful to talk about. By asking them something that
probably doesn’t have a happy answer, you may be putting them
in an uncomfortable situation.

Upon hearing how a person ended up in the wheelchair, the
response is usually along the lines of “that sucks” or
“sorry” followed by a long, awkward pause. Not fun for
anyone.

There are some instances where this question is completely
OK. For instance, if you’re on a date or have become friends
with a person and are curious, I think that it’s a positive
question that can open the door for a deeper connection.

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6. “Can you
have sex/kids?”

About four years ago I was at a work event and an industry
colleague whom I had never met asked me mid-conversation if I
was able to have children. The question took me by surprise,
yet it has happened several times since then. And men ask me
on the regular if I can have sex — or how I
have sex.

A person’s reproductive and sexual abilities are always
personal and it is never OK to ask them about it, unless you
know them well.

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7. “Watch
out for the wheelchair.”

This one is tricky. It’s great to be helpful in situations
where there are a lot of people, but calling out just
the wheelchair takes the person out of the equation.

It’s nitpicky, but I always feel frustrated when people say,
“the wheelchair.” I am a person in a wheelchair, and that’s
what should be called out.

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8. “Yes,
we’re wheelchair accessible. There are just a few stairs.”

This is mostly for people who work at restaurants, event
spaces, apartment buildings, stores, etc. I can’t tell you
how often I get told something is wheelchair accessible, but
that there are a few stairs.

If something has stairs, it is not wheelchair accessible.
Just be honest and upfront with the information.

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9. “Just
keep praying. You’ll have a miracle.”

You’d be surprised how many people tell me to pray more, that
I’ll get better soon, or that I’ll have a miracle. I have
frequently been told that my situation will change if I just
pray more, and it’s hurtful in part because it implies I have
a level of control over the situation. This comment comes
from the heart, but it’s embarrassing to be on the receiving
end of it, especially when out with friends or family.

If you do want to pray for someone or wish they would pray,
please do so silently.

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10. *stares
silently*

So this final one isn’t a comment but it has an equal impact.
It’s not polite to stare at anyone, especially when they are
just trying to go about their daily life, from being out with
a significant other to getting in the car.

We all understand some curiosity, but please be aware that
staring for long periods of time is off-putting.

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OK, I know this is tricky and a lot of it can feel
situation-based.

For instance, I’m almost never offended or taken aback when
someone who has a family member with a disability comes over
to ask me a question, and leads with that fact. But those
questions or comments never include any of the above.

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My final parting recommendation is to ask yourself: Would I
be saying this if it were an able-bodied person?

If the answer is no, then please do not say it to a person in
a wheelchair, especially if you don’t know them.

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