When I see someone in a wheelchair, should I offer to push the chair?
Think of someone's wheelchair or other mobility device as an extension of their body — you wouldn't just go pick someone up by their legs and walk for them. Mobility devices are used to offer independence, so unless the person asks, it's generally considered rude and invasive to push the wheelchair of someone you don't know.
Is it rude to ask what happened to them?
All people deserve to have their medical privacy respected, including disabled people. If a disabled person wants you to know more about their disability, they will tell you when they are comfortable. In addition to the right to medical privacy, the question in general can be traumatizing or insensitive. Many disabled people have simply been born with a disability like myself, or if their disability was acquired throughout their life, then they may have experienced a traumatizing event. Anyway you spin it, this question is inappropriate.
Should I bend down to talk to the person? It feels awkward, but so does standing up.
There is no need to bend down. As long as they can hear you and you can maintain eye contact, then bending down is unnecessary and can come across as patronizing — even if you have good intentions! The reason we feel awkward is because society is uncomfortable with disability, but disability is not a bad thing! And if you're intentional and examine where that lack of ease comes from, you will be able to pinpoint areas where you can grow and learn to become comfortable with disability.
When it comes to easing life for wheelchair users, what are some positive things to do — holding doors? Shoveling snow?
When you're going to spend time with someone who uses a wheelchair, make sure the place you're going is in fact accessible. Pay attention when you're at your favorite stores, buildings or parks — are they accessible by wheelchair or mobility aid? If not, request that they become accessible. You can send organizations that specialize in making infrastructure ADA compliant their way. Most accessibility accommodations cost $500 or less and can be reimbursed.
Is the term "disabled person" OK to use?
Yes! While personal preference should always be respected, "Disabled person" and "person with disabilities" are the two terms the disabled community prefer. Many well-intentioned people will use euphemisms like "special needs" or "differently abled," but the reality is that they use these words because they are uncomfortable saying someone is disabled because they view disability as a bad thing. Disability is not a bad thing, it's a part of who we are. Removing the stigma from the word and seeing it as a descriptor helps the fight for equity between disabled and non-disabled people. Plus, sociology studies show that society has more patronizing stigmas attached to euphemisms like special needs or differently abled than just saying disabled.
Sometimes people refer to those with disabilities as inspiring, but it can seem patronizing. What's your take?
When the media consistently only shows stories and images of disabled people "overcoming the odds" and doing incredible things, then this falls into a category referred to as "inspiration porn". Inspiration porn is an informal term, coined by the late Australian disability activist Stella Young, for a loose genre of media depictions of disabled people where our community is portrayed with tones of sentimentality or pity, through an uplifting moral message aimed at non-disabled viewers.
Like actual pornography, inspiration porn provides a superficial pleasure and gratification for the viewer while objectifying, and often harming, the mostly passive disabled subjects being looked at.
Inspiration porn reinforces the idea that disability is something that must be, and can be, overcome. When in fact, disability is just a part of who we are — we don't need to overcome it.
When I meet someone who has trouble speaking, should I fill in words for them?
Just like you wouldn't like it if someone tried to fill in your sentences when they wanted you to "get to the point," the same goes for disabled people. If somebody struggles with their speech, the best thing to do is to listen. It may take them a little longer to get their point across, but all that's really needed here is patience.
My child always stares at people in a wheelchair. What should I do?
With children, education starts at home. Children often aren't exposed to disability much because disabled people are only shown in the media 3.1% of the time, and in schools disabled children can sometimes be segregated from mainstream classrooms. Children stare when they see something "different" from their "normal" — what we want to do is make sure they know that disability is normal.
Have open conversations from a young age and talk to your child about disability — visible and invisible — and find children's books that have disabled characters. These are fairly easy to find and can be a great way to normalize the topic in your home.
Is it OK to use the disability-access stall in the restroom?
It's only OK to use the disability-access stall if you are disabled. Let's put it like this: if you are a woman and the public restrooms have 10 men's stalls and only one women's stall, how would you feel if you were desperate to go to the bathroom but a man was in the one stall you were able to use?
People often prefer disability-access stalls because they are larger, and they are more private. But for a disabled person, this is not a personal preference — it's a necessity.
What about parking in disabled parking spots?
Same thing. It's only OK to park in disabled parking spaces if you are a disabled person who needs to park there. Disabled parking spaces are near the front of the store because if you're in a wheelchair, or if you struggle with mobility, getting from your car into the store can be difficult and dangerous. Disabled parking spaces are also bigger for people who use specially designed vehicles for travel and who need the extra space to get in and out of wheelchairs and mobility devices. These spots provide safety and ease of access. Parking in them for convenience disregards the needs of disabled people.
Kelsey Lindell is a disability advocate who works to educate people about disability rights and ableism. Reach her at kelseylindell.com. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.