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There is etiquette, and then there is the real world

By Ernie Williamson / Special to The Bulletin

Oops! Sorry! My mistake!

In last week’s column I mentioned being “wheelchair-bound.”

Little did I know this violates the rules of etiquette for interacting with persons with disabilities. So says the United Spinal Association.

You would think after 7 years in a wheelchair I would know better.

The association’s guidelines recommend saying “person who uses a wheelchair” and not “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.” According to the group, “The wheelchair is what enables the person to get around and participate in society. It’s liberating, not confining.”

My first reaction was to rail against political correctness. I was going to write an old-fogy rant about how I had never thought of my wheelchair as liberating and that I do feel “bound” to it, and it is “confining.”

When sanity took over, however, I realized how liberating my chair can be. Without it, there would be no moving through the house. There would be no way to get to my van, no restaurants, no movie theatres, no gym, no library, no visits to the grandkids.

So having proven that you are never too old to learn, I wondered if there were other etiquette guidelines all of us – disabled or not – should observe.

OTHER WORDS TO AVOID

Etiquette: Don’t use outdated terms like “handicapped” or “crippled.” Be aware that many people with disabilities also dislike euphemistic terms like “physically challenged” and “differently-abled.”

Comment: I didn’t know about “handicapped.” It seems a bunch of parking signs are in violation. But I do notice fewer “Handicapped” parking signs and more “Reserved” signs that also display the wheelchair logo. Frankly, I don’t care whether parking signs say “Handicapped” or “Reserved.” I just want the spot to be empty and not occupied by somebody who doesn’t need it.

ASK BEFORE YOU HELP

Etiquette: Just because someone has a disability, don’t assume the person needs help. Offer assistance only if a person appears to need it and ask before you act.

Comment: Independence was important to me during my first years in the wheelchair.

I wanted to open doors myself. I wanted to reach the top shelf without assistance. Now I welcome all the help I can get. I sometimes decline offers of assistance, but I am never offended by them. More bothersome is having to ask for help.

EYE-TO-EYE

Etiquette: The height difference between people in wheelchairs and able-bodies can create an unspoken feeling of superiority and inferiority. To be safe, when possible sit or stand at eye-level with the person who has the disability.

Comment: I have been at the highs and lows of this issue. I am 6’5”. With few exceptions, like the time I stood next to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a San Antonio hotel elevator, I spent most of the time before my illness towering over people. It is weird now to be looking up.

NOT TO WORRY

Etiquette: Do not apologize for using expressions such as “let’s go for a walk” or “I must be running along.” These expressions are part of everyday conversation and an apology will most likely be more offensive than the words.

Comment: I agree, but it is interesting how sitting in a wheelchair affects what I hear. When I returned to work from 6 months of disability leave, colleagues, trying to be nice, would say something like, “Ernie, you are looking good.” That’s what they said.

But what I heard was “Ernie, you are looking good for someone in a wheelchair.” I joke that I probably received more compliments on my appearance in those first couple of days back to work than in my prior 66 years.

IT’S ALWAYS SOMETHING

Etiquette: When someone transfers from a wheelchair to a chair or bed, don’t move the chair without asking.

Comment: Common sense, right? Modern technology, however, has complicated the issue. I have a power assist device attached to my otherwise manual chair. I give it commands by tapping a wheel with a Bluetooth connection on my wrist. It’s great … as long as I remember to turn it off. Too many times I have transferred out of the wheelchair and forgotten to deactivate the wristband, only to find my wheelchair on the other side of the room. This is a situation where nobody needs to ask me if they can help. Please. Just do it!

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com)