The below wheelchair etiquette guide with photos and steps will help you interact, respect user in a wheelchair and understand that they are no different from anyone else. People find themselves using wheelchairs for a variety of reasons. Every user has their own unique story about what caused them to become a wheelchair user. Unfortunately, the general public may not be aware of wheelchair etiquette. There are times when others may accidentally offend or embarrass a wheelchair user without realizing their actions. Wheelchair users are just like anyone else, they want to be treated fair and equal. They don’t want special treatment or pitiful looks. They just want to live their lives happily. Follow these simple wheelchair etiquette guidelines and help avoid any awkward situations when talking with a person in a wheelchair.  

Step 1: Don’t Assume

When you meet someone in a wheelchair don’t automatically assume they are paralyzed. People use wheelchairs for a variety of reasons including recovering from accidents or surgery, heart conditions, illness, equilibrium issues and walking restrictions. Don’t be surprised if you see someone in a wheelchair stand up to reach something off the top shelf. You should never judge or doubt the person’s disability.


Step 2: Greetings

You will want to greet a wheelchair user as you would any other person. Extend your hand for a handshake. Even if the person has an artificial limb or limited use of their hands, it is still appropriate to shake hands or at least offer your hand.

Step 3: Speak Directly to the Wheelchair User

There are times when a wheelchair user will have someone helping them, or simply be surrounded with family and friends. You will always want to recognize the wheelchair user and speak to them directly. A common mistake many people make is they speak to the other people about the user. Talking over the wheelchair users head is disrespectful and rude. It also implies that the person is not capable enough to respond to questions or participate in a conversation. Some of the most brilliant people in the world are wheelchair users don’t miss out on your chance to have an amazing conversation with them.

Step 4: Use Words and Phrases

People tend to get choked up and be on guard about their vocabulary around wheelchair users. It’s appropriate to use common phrases such as “running along.” The wheelchair user understands that you don’t mean the comment to be literal. It is more uncomfortable if you begin to say the phrase and stop half way through it causing discomfort to the situation.

Step 5: Don’t Refer to the Wheelchair

You may have a co-worker, family member, friend, neighbor or meet a stranger that uses a wheelchair. A common mistake is making a comment regarding the chair itself. Unless you are interested in the actual model of the chair so you can purchase one for yourself or a family member, the wheelchair should never be discussed. It is just a tool that allows the person to enjoy a fulfilled life. You wouldn’t want a wheelchair user coming up to you and commenting on the size or speed of your legs would you?


Step 6: Do Not Touch the Wheelchair

Wheelchair users are at a similar height as young children. While it is natural to touch a child’s hair or pat their back, it is not an action you will want to repeat on a wheelchair user. Depending on the person's condition you may actually cause them back pain due to your tapping or patting their back. The gesture can also be patronizing to the wheelchair user. You will never want to touch the wheelchair unless you ask for permission from the user.

Step 7: Offer Help at Appropriate Times

Not all wheelchair users need help. Many are highly independent and have found unique ways to solve life’s challenges. Only offer your help to a wheelchair user if you see that they are struggling or it is obvious that they will not be able to reach something or successfully complete a specific task such as getting something off the top shelf at the grocery store. Simply offer your assistance and wait for an answer to see if they will accept your offer.

Step 8: Be Aware of Accessible Ramps

Remember that wheelchair users are capable of reading a mall directory or floor map of a building just like anyone else. If you are entering a building or mall with a wheelchair user kindly ask “What is the best way for them to handle the situation?” The wheelchair user will give details on how they can best navigate the mall and use the accessible ramps to make their visit more enjoyable.


Step 9: Show Respect at all Times

Be aware of your environment and respectful to wheelchair users at all times. This means even when there is not a wheelchair user in sight, you should still refrain from using handicap parking spots and bathroom stalls. At any moment a wheelchair user can arrive and you have just taken the only bathroom stall that their chair fits into successfully. They will have to wait for you and then imagine your embarrassment as you leave the stall only to find you caused them discomfort when you could have easily chosen any other stall or just wait in line.

Step 10: Don’t compare every wheelchair user to an elderly adult

Sometimes people make comments that are rude without realizing their behavior. A comment such as “All you need are pearls and a scarf and you can join the senior citizen team,” is not appropriate. You may think it’s funny but it is actually embarrassing and rude. Refrain from comparing wheelchair users of any age to anything or anyone else.

Helpful Tips

  • Keep empty grocery carts from blocking handicap parking spaces.
  • Don’t park to close to handicap parking places. Make sure you allow a decent size space between the cars.
  • When available, sit down when having a conversation with a wheelchair user.
  • Keep your hands to yourself. Don’t touch the wheelchair ever. It is considered an extension of the user’s body.
  • Accept assistance from a wheelchair user. Many times a wheelchair user may see you struggling with grocery bags that are obviously too heavy. They will offer their help. Accept their offer and allow the user to help you to their full ability.
  • When talking with a group of people, don’t block the wheelchair user’s view of everyone. This is considered rude.
  • Restaurant owners should reserve a table and booth within the restaurant that is easily accessible by wheelchair and have a clear path leading up to the table.

There are millions of wheelchair users located throughout the world. Chances are you either have a family member, friend or co-worker that is in a wheelchair. At times, something strange happens when non-wheelchair users come into contact with wheelchair users, it is called discomfort. Regular people get nervous about what to say or do around them and they stumble which causes awkward moments. The following tips and advice will help non-wheelchair users feel confident they are treating others with respect.

How to Approach People in Wheelchairs

  • Ignore the wheelchair
  • Be friendly
  • Greet them, introduce yourself and shake their hand
  • Treat them as you do everyone else
  • Talk to them as you would anyone
  • Speak directly to the wheelchair user
  • Sit down at their eye level if possible
  • Do not grab or touch the wheelchair unless asked by the user
  • Don’t have a sad look on your face because you feel bad for them

When You Should Offer Assistance

  • Offer assistance only if the person needs it
  • Ask what specific way the wheelchair user needs you to help
  • Don’t assume every wheelchair user needs help
  • Offer assistance if you see the user struggling to attempt a task
  • Always wait for the wheelchair user to accept your assistance verbally by offering a yes or no answer

Appropriate Questions to Ask a Wheelchair User

Depending on the situation and the person involved, you can ask a wheelchair user a variety of questions. You must use your instinct when trying to learn more about the person. If the conversation is going smoothly and they seem open to sharing personal stories, you can ask specific questions. If the person seems uncomfortable and shy, you may want to hold back with personal questions that may upset them. Gage the conversation and use your intuition when asking them questions. The following questions are considered generally appropriate.

  • Would you like assistance?
  • What model is your wheelchair? (this is appropriate if you are considering purchasing a wheelchair for yourself or a family member)
  • Have you heard about the exciting new wheelchair accessories on the market?
  • How can society make things easier for wheelchair users?

Questions to Avoid

The following questions are generally best avoided. They are intrusive and unless you know the wheelchair user personally and have a mutual friendship these questions should not be asked. Even then, most of these questions should never be spoken by anyone.

  • What caused you to be in a wheelchair?
  • Can you have sex?
  • How fast does your wheelchair go?
  • Does it drive you crazy sitting in the wheelchair every day?
  • Can you pop a wheelie?
  • Can I pray for you?
  • Is anyone else in your family in a wheelchair?
  • Will you recover?
  • Do you feel depressed?
  • Do you miss doing “normal” things?


How to Interact with Wheelchair Users

Non-wheelchair users have to admit that at some point in their life they may have become nervous around a wheelchair user. You struggle not to offend them so you are so guarded with your behavior which comes out in a variety of ways.

One of the most common ways is by being overly nice to the wheelchair user. Talking to them extra sweet, almost like a small child and doing things that you feel will help them. Unfortunately, this makes them feel worse and it draws more attention to them than normal. The following tips will help you interact successfully with wheelchair users.

  • Shake off your nerves and treat them like every other person you come into contact with
  • Understand the wheelchair is an extension of their body and it should not be touched unless they request you to do so
  • Speak to them as an adult
  • Discuss a variety of topics including politics and other interesting current events
  • See the person for who they are, not just a wheelchair user
  • Offer assistance only when it seems necessary and wait for a response from the wheelchair user
  • Don’t ask personal questions regarding health when speaking to strangers
  • Look into their eyes when speaking to them
  • Don’t discuss them with their caregiver as if they were not in the room
  • Laugh and have a good time
  • Speak freely, but don’t be offensive

One of the most important tips is to understand and realize that a wheelchair user is a person first and always. They just get around in a different way. Treat a wheelchair user as you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed. Think about what you are going to say before you actually speak the words. Sometimes a sentence might seem funny, but when you run it through your head it actually can be taken differently then you intended. Wheelchair users are just like you and they deserve to be treated equally. Take your time when having a conversation and meeting them. Once you get comfortable with all of the tips and learn to avoid certain things, you will naturally feel comfortable around wheelchair users and ultimately make them feel respected.

Keep these helpful wheelchair etiquette tips in mind every time you are graced with the presence of a wheelchair user. Remember that they are just like you and should be treated with respect. Never talk to them with a baby voice or make them feel less of a person. Always use your full voice and be polite, without being condescending. The next time you meet a wheelchair user you will surely make them feel comfortable when following these helpful suggestions.

Lightweight and folding power wheelchair from KD Smart Chair.