For wheelchair users one of the irritating and potentially distressing things that happens a lot is people touching your wheelchair without permission. I appreciate that this mostly occurs out of curiosity or a desire to be helpful, but it can still be upsetting.
To most non-users I suspect all wheelchairs look the same. But they’re definitely not! For most regular wheelchair users their chairs will be individually designed for them, to meet a particular prescription and set of requirements. Additionally, wheelchairs are often very expensive – mine’s not particularly flashy but it still cost thousands of pounds.
Something else that many people won’t necessarily understand is how much a part of my body my chair feels – if it gets knocked, I often wince even if it’s metres away from me. It’s also incredibly rude to hang stuff on it without asking, or to pull me backwards suddenly with no warning.
Fortunately there have been only a few times when I’ve been treated really badly because I use a wheelchair, but these occasions have stayed with me. One of these, back in 2015, was when a man grabbed and pushed my wheelchair whilst I was out with friends, and whispered unpleasant comments in my ear. I hadn’t realised how deeply this had impacted on me until yesterday evening when something totally innocent brought it crashing back to me.
I’d gone to a Heart N Soul, party at the Wellcome Collection, to celebrate the start of their new hub residency – check it out if you can, it’s going to be brilliant! Leftwing Idiot and my support worker Joe had come too. Leftwing Idiot and I are Wellcome Trust Fellows so we have staff passes. To get to the event we had to go through a security gate. A bit after navigating this I realised we’d left a security door open, so I asked Joe to pop back and close it since Leftwing Idiot had gone on ahead. I went to catch up with him.
Leftwing Idiot was just ahead of me, walking through the busy café area. As I passed through I felt someone suddenly grab my chair. My reaction was strong and instantaneous – I shot round to push the person away. It took me a moment to realise it was Joe – he must’ve run to catch up with me and I hadn’t heard him coming. It was all over in a few seconds, and I was immediately able to explain why I’d reacted so strongly. He was very understanding.
I was surprised by the speed and force of my reaction but suspect this might’ve been because I’d recently read about a number of other similar incidents when wheelchair users had been grabbed non-consensually, including this one.
It was such a weird sensation and I could feel the adrenalin rushing through my body for a while afterwards. But it did subside and it wasn’t long before we were all enjoying the party.
For any non-wheelchairs users here are a few tips on good etiquette:
1. Never touch someone’s chair without asking (unless you think they are in imminent danger.)
2. If you think someone needs assistance, always them ask first. Never make assumptions, and listen carefully to their reply.
3. Never pile coats or bags on equipment without asking regardless of whether you think someone is using it or not.
4. Never move a wheelchair without asking – it’s likely to be where it is for a specific reason. ‘Tidying’ it away is likely to mean it’s not where its user needs or expects it to be.
5. Don’t ask someone you’ve just met why they use a particular piece of equipment. It’s not acceptable to ask about a person’s private medical history.
6. Always speak directly to a person in a wheelchair rather than to anyone who may be with them.
7. Apologise if you’ve knocked someone’s chair accidently. If you’re trying to squeeze past someone, it’s probably better to let them know you’re there and see if they can move to let you through.
8. You don’t have a right to ‘have a go’. I’ll sometimes let friends sit in my chair, or curious children see what it’s like, but many other people won’t be comfortable with this. What may seem like a novelty to you is essential kit for someone else, and should be treated with respect.
9. Don’t sit on a wheelchair user (unless they invite you to) – it might seem obvious but you’d be surprised how often this comes up.
10. Mobility aids are tools for living and a person might need to use a wheelchair one day, but not the next. Don’t make assumptions based on what type of mobility aid someone is choosing to use on any particular day. Comments like ‘Wow, you’ve got better!’ or ‘I don’t think you really need that’ can be deeply upsetting and unhelpful.
What happened yesterday was a reminder of the importance of my chair and how vulnerable I can feel in public spaces. Joe was thoughtful and understanding in his response and in how he supported me at the party and beyond, and I appreciated this deeply.