A brand-new year is always an occasion for self-improvement. This year, why not look for ways to become a more sensitive human? A great starting place is to become more thoughtful in your interactions with people who use mobility devices. Whether your mobility-challenged buddy uses a wheelchair or a rollator, here are a few best practices that will help make your interactions more comfortable and make you look like you finally read an article on how to be a supportive friend.
Mobility device users, feel free to forward these tips to any less-than-sensitive humans you know!
See the person first
Wheelchair and rollator users are also fellow humans with full lives and identities as mothers, siblings, professionals, amazing cooks, avid movie watchers and more. So when you see them, don’t fixate on their mobility device. That’s a tool that they use, not the person. Regular eye contact can be a great way to show you’re paying attention.
You should also resist the urge to make assumptions about why a person is using a device. Don’t ask for the story behind their wheelchair or comment on the fact that the rollator must make them steadier on their feet. Instead, ask about their latest Netflix binge or how their family is doing.
Involve them in conversation
Part of seeing the person instead of their disability is treating them the way you would any other human. Don’t make the mistake of addressing a caregiver pushing a wheelchair or a companion walking alongside a rollator! Talk to the person directly, and involve them by making room for their device in your circle of conversation (this goes double for group conversations—stand far enough away so nobody is straining their necks).
It’s considered especially rude to bend down to the level of someone using a device, but do feel free to find a quiet corner to sit down if you are planning an extended conversation.
Ask before providing assistance
While most people are well meaning, just because someone is using a mobility device doesn’t mean they need your assistance. Definitely ask first if you can help, whether it’s in moving a mobility device out of the way, steering or another maneuver. If the person says they are fine, don’t insist. But do adjust your pace to match theirs if they need to move more slowly, and let them know if there is something in your shared environment that could be a danger.
If you are asked to help, communicate your actions clearly: ask them for any special instructions, follow the route they suggest, and tell them before you let go of the handles on their device.
Respect their space and device
Many long-time users of mobility devices consider them an extension of their bodies, so don’t lean on a wheelchair, rest your feet on the wheels of a rollator, or assume that you can just drop your stuff in their storage bag without asking. Give them as much personal space as you would any other friend, don’t pat them on the head (surprising how often this happens to adults!) and don’t ask if you can “test drive their ride”.