My recent use of my wheelchair at school has conveniently reminded me of the need for direct conversations on wheelchair etiquette to take place. I hope you find this list simple and helpful! Questions are welcome.
1. Hold Doors
This is the simplest thing and the thing people seem to be the best at, so I put it first. Collectively give yourselves pats on the back for being decent human beings.
2. Accept Short Answers
I think it's okay to ask someone what is wrong or what happened, though many people in the chronic illness community would argue me on that, but if the person using a wheelchair gives a short response just go with it. Don't ask any more questions. Before you ask, think: Do I care? Or am I just being nosy?
3. Ask Before You Push
Pushing someone's wheelchair can actually be very helpful and a real lifesaver, especially for someone like me who has arthritis in my upper extremities as well. But you have to ask. One time during my sophomore year someone who didn't normally push my wheelchair came up and started wheeling me around and I screamed. The truth is, it is frightening, and I, like any other human being using a wheelchair, want to have control over where my body is and when. Pushing is often very helpful, just be sure to ask first and don't take it personally if your offer is refused.
4. Don't Lean on the Wheelchair
If you are standing near someone's wheelchair, don't lean on it. That is an invasion of personal space and it is really uncomfortable.
5. Don't Avoid the Word "Walked"
This one makes me laugh because it is just so painfully awkward. If I am using my wheelchair someone will say something like, "So then Rachel walked over, and we started talking about cats..." Then, in a moment of instantaneous realization, their face turns artificial-cherry-red and they very apologetically say something like, "I mean, rolled. Or, wheeled..." and their voice trails off into an abyss of regret. Saying "walked" is okay, because the point of your sentence is usually that I got from Point A to Point B, not that I physically moved my legs back and forth in a repetitive manner. It's really okay to say "walked." I promise.
All in all, I think it is pretty simple, but I am also sympathetic to the fact that most people are genuinely trying to be as kind and sensitive as possible. Remember, you are allowed to mess up, and if you break one of these unofficial rules it is not the end of the world. No one is perfect.