Ah… the good old wheelchair debate… to touch or not to touch the chair? And if it’s OK to touch, then when and how is it acceptable? It seems to be a question hanging around social media of late, so I am going to answer the question here (from my perspective – as in all things – these things differ for everyone, just to make life interesting).
Stella Young once wrote about a woman who hung her grocery bags off Stella’s wheelchair while she was on the train. Once, I had a woman think it was acceptable to use my chair as a backrest, and when I dared to move my chair, huffed and puffed over it. Apparently I was there for her convenience. I think we can all agree that these situations are the height of rudeness and such liberties should never be taken with stranger’s chairs. Indeed, I can tell you right now that regardless of the individual views of the wheelchair population, unless someone is in imminent danger, it is never OK to touch a strangers chair without asking first. And don’t even bother asking if your plan is to use the chair to hang your shopping, or as a footrest or something – not unless you have a damn good reason anyway. So there is your first rule.
Never touch a strangers chair without asking first, unless that person is in imminent danger.
Things get a little trickier when it comes to friends and family however. From what I read online, and from my own personal point of view, friends and family get certain wheelchair privileges. These privileges come in stages, depending on your relationship with the person however. For instance, even for relative strangers, it’s OK to touch the chair in order to access our bodies – that is, if you are hugging us, and need to rest an elbow or arm on the chair somewhere in order to do so. It is also OK to touch the chair as part of touching us – that is, if you are hugging us, and one arm is around our front (chest), and the other is around the back of the seat. These types of scenarios can be thought of as “First Stage” scenarios – personal contact interactions that are usually always acceptable.
It is obviously acceptable to touch someone’s chair as a part of physically interacting with them, such as in giving hugs etc.
Second Stage scenarios is where things start to differ depending on the personality and needs and wants of the wheelchair user. Second Stage scenarios are things such as using part of the chair to rest your foot on while you sit together having a coffee, or hanging your shopping on the back while you are out and about. Generally, even for close friends and family, it is polite to ask first, but generally it will be OK to do so. Eventually you may even know without asking whether it is going to be OK on that particular day or not.
If you know the person reasonably well, feel free to ask whether it is OK to rest your foot on their chair, or hang your shopping on their chair, etc.
Third Stage scenarios is the last stage and this is when you need to ask, regardless of how close you are to the person. As in, even my husband asks me these things. Situations that involve maneuvering the chair – as in, if the person needs help pushing, ask first, and always take their lead on where you push and how fast you push etc. It is a wheelchair, an extension of a person, not a shopping trolley. Another situation is when parking a chair, always ask where the person would like to be situated.
Even if you are married, ALWAYS ASK when it comes to moving and positioning someone’s chair.
As already stated, some people using chairs will be more laid back, and others more uptight, however these general rules seem to be the middle ground when it comes to social graces in relation to wheelchairs.