Yesterday, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed (what else is new?) when I came across a post titled, “100 Ways White People Can Make Life Less Frustrating for People of Color.” As I went down the list of suggestions, I realized that many of them could be very easily modified to apply to how able bodied people (attempt to) interact with people in wheelchairs and with various disabilities. Sometimes it’s quite pleasant and nothing to write home about, but very frequently it’s cringe-inducing at best and very upsetting at worst. So here’s my abbreviated take on ways that able bodied (i.e. walking and healthy) people can make life less frustrating for wheelchair users.
1. Just because you can’t see ableism around you doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Trust a wheelchair user’s assessment of a situation.
2. Don’t assume that all wheelchair users share the same views. We are not a monolith.
3. Don’t assume or guess people’s disabilities or reasons for needing a wheelchair or electric scooter or other mobility aid. This is NOT a fun game for us.
4. If you meet someone permanently in a wheelchair, don’t say you know what their life is like because you broke your leg once and had to use a chair for six weeks. We appreciate the empathy, but you do NOT know what our lives are like.
5. Regard us as autonomous, unique individuals, not as representatives of our disability.
6. Don’t make embarrassing jokes to try and be “down” with wheelchair users. No, we don’t want to race, no, we don’t want to give you a ride, and no, we don’t have a license for that thing. We’ll laugh at you, not with you.
7. Don’t question someone’s hardships because they don’t “look disabled.” Many disabilities are invisible and you have no idea what they go through or deal with.
8. Never try and tell a wheelchair user what is or isn’t ableist.
9. Don’t assume we need help just because we’re in a chair or we’re in public by ourselves. Many of us live alone, drive alone, travel alone. Always ask first.
10. When you find high-tech experimental gadget videos online of things that may help us stand/walk/climb, please don’t send them to us. Most of us can’t use or afford them.
11. Have a critical eye when watching TV and movies. How are they portraying wheelchair users or people with disabilities and why? What purpose does it serve?
12. If you have kids, buy them books with characters in wheelchairs or with disabilities.
13. Don’t assume that people with disabilities that affect their speech can’t hear you, can’t understand you, or have less brain function.
14. In general, just don’t assume we all want to walk again. And don’t pressure us to do so.
15. People can be disabled and different races and gay and trans and middle class. Disability is expansive. It doesn’t look one way. Keep this in mind.
16. Remember that it is wheelchair users and people with disabilities who are most likely to be raped or assaulted in their lifetimes in America. You cannot be an advocate against sexual violence without considering the impact of disability.
17. Don’t touch/push our fucking chairs without our permission. They are extensions of our bodies and should be respected as such.
18. Also, saying “I’ve never fucked a man/woman in a wheelchair” to someone you’re trying to hook up with is a one way ticket to hell.
19. If you have such fetishistic thoughts, just don’t even bother coming near a person in a wheelchair.
20. Remember that dating a wheelchair user is not a cure for ableism or a way to live out weird fantasies.
21. If you have a friend or family member or partner in a wheelchair, trust and believe that you can still be ableist. You’re not exempt. If anything, you have even more of a duty to examine your behavior for the benefit of your loved ones.
22. Take your ableist family members to task for the shit they say over the dinner table or via social media.
23. Look around your workplace—are there any wheelchair users? What can you do to change that? (The answer is almost never “nothing.”)
24. Think about how accessibility (or lack there of) is operating even when wheelchair users aren’t around. Be cognizant of it wherever you are, whichever situation you’re in. Wheelchair users have to, so should you.
25. Don’t assume, full stop, that you can understand what it’s like to experience ableism. You can’t. That’s the whole point.
26. Understand that nothing in your life has been untouched by your ability to walk. Everything you have would have been harder to come by if you were a wheelchair user.
27. Be grateful for the lesson when you’re called out on ableism. Getting defensive won’t help.
28. Recognize that fighting ableism isn’t about you, it’s not about your feelings; it’s about liberating people with disabilities from a world that tries to crush us at every turn.
29. If someone tells you they have multiple sclerosis, don’t say, “I have a friend with muscular dystrophy!” Just, please.
30. And remember: Being an ally is a verb, not a noun. You can’t just magically be an ally to wheelchair users or people with disabilities because you say you’re one. It’s something that you must continually work on.