You see someone in a wheelchair inching up a hill or straining for a high-shelf item at the store—any well meaning, non-disabled person’s first reaction is to want to help, right? Big takeaway: People in wheelchairs more often than not do not actually need your help (but it’s still polite to offer). Shows like Sundance Channel’s Push Girls and YouTube sensation My Gimpy Life are broadening our horizons about our preconceived notions and what it really means to be disabled and in a wheelchair. To set the record straight—and in an attempt to avoid future awkward moments—the hilarious creator and star of My Gimpy Life, Teal Sherer, shares tips on what to do and what not to do when you run into someone in a wheelchair in some common scenarios.
Scene 1: You’re at the grocery store and see a disabled person eyeing the top shelf.
Don’t: Run over and grab every item off the shelf like a courteous maniac.
Do: Calmly say, “Hey, if you need me to grab something for you, just ask.”
Teal says: “If we need help, we’ll ask. We’re used to it, and some disabled people are prepared for situations like this and shop with a ‘reacher.’”
Scene 2: You see a disabled stranger on the street.
Don’t: Stop the person and tell them how inspirational they are.
Do: Treat them like any other person.
Teal says: “This always boggles my mind, because how do they know I’m not a serial killer?!”
Check out an episode of “My Gimpy Life” below.
Scene 3: You’re at a restaurant and see a disabled person with their service dog.
Don’t: Excitedly approach the dog, or touch it, or make distracting noises.
Do: Understand that the dog is working and isn’t a common pet.
Teals says: “Pets are adorable and without them, half the Internet would be blank, but if you’d like to interact with a service dog, ask the owner’s permission first. Then, the owner can give their service dog a command so it knows it’s off duty and can play with you.”
Scene 4: You see a disabled person at the gym working out.
Don’t: Say, “Hey, you’re in great shape for a someone in a wheelchair.”
Do: Say, “Hey, you’re in great shape.”
Teal says: “It’s much more of a compliment without the wheelchair qualifier, which implies that people in wheelchairs aren’t usually in good shape. Haven’t you seen Paralympic athletes?”
Scene 5: You’re at the movies and you notice a disabled person transferring out of their wheelchair into a theater seat.
Don’t: Stare and tell them “good job.”
Do: Understand that transferring is a part of their everyday life — it’s not a big deal.
Teal says: “People wonder why I don’t just stay in my wheelchair, and it’s because theater seats are usually more comfortable. My chair has a low backrest, which I prefer (I like the look and it makes it easier for me to push), but it isn’t made for relaxing. It’s also easier to snuggle with my husband if I’m in a theater seat.”
Scene 6: You’re at the park and you see a disabled person pushing up a steep incline.
Don’t: Run up behind the person and start pushing them.
Do: Ask yourself if it looks like they need help. If so, then politely ask if you can give them a hand. If not, just let them do their thing.
Teal says: “I’ve had strangers sneak up and push me before, and it scares the crap out of me.”
Scene 7: You’re in a public restroom and notice one of the stalls is a lot roomier.
Don’t: Take the disabled bathroom stall because you like the legroom.
Do: Take a regular stall so people in need have access to the accessible one.
Teal says: “This irritates me to no end (watch Episode 4 of My Gimpy Life to see why). The Americans with Disabilities Act legally requires that public restrooms are accessible to people like me because I physically can’t fit my wheelchair into regular bathroom stalls. I will say, though, if you’re desperate and the disabled stall is the only one open, by all means, first come, first served.”
Scene 8: You see a wheelchair user getting into their car.
Don’t: Grab their wheelchair and try to pull it apart or jam the chair into the backseat.
Do: Ask yourself if it looks like they’re having a problem. If so, then politely offer to help.
Teal says: “If you see a disabled person driving, it means they’re likely independent. Plus, I have a certain way I like to put my chair in my car so when a stranger tries to help it usually just makes it more difficult and slows me down.”
Scene 9: A disabled person is behind you in a line.
Don’t: Fart directly into their face.
Do: Wait to fart in a clear direction.
Teal says: “My nose is usually at the same height as everyone else’s crotches. If you pass gas in my general direction, I’m going to notice, and you might get a punch in the butt.”
Scene 10: You meet a disabled person on the dance floor.
Don’t: Swing the person around or give them an unsolicited lap dance.
Do: Dance your butt off and respect that some people move in their own way.
Teal says: “I can’t speak for all people in chairs, but I can speak for all women, and we don’t enjoy a stranger grinding on us.”