As I sat at my desk at work, boss man stopped by to say hello. Most colleagues at work keep a professional distance, as they would with other coworkers, regardless of disability. But this interaction with boss man was different and got me thinking about the use of personal space for those of us with disabilities. He leaned over and grasped onto the back push bars of my wheelchair, talking to me out of the side of my peripheral vision. Needless to say, as many wheelchair users have probably experienced, the presence of his hand on my push bar felt like an uncomfortable “too close for comfort” kind of contact. For many wheelchair users, this is the equivalent of leaning onto another person’s shoulders, which many would consider inappropriately close contact for a professional environment.
Understanding the personal space of people with disabilities can be tricky because it varies from person to person depending on their needs and if they use certain types of adaptive equipment. Here are some things to consider when interacting with a wheelchair user or individual with a disability:
Respect their personal space, just as you would someone who does not use a wheelchair or adaptive equipment. For wheelchair users, our personal bubble can be a bit broader. It’s so important to treat the wheelchair as you would an extension of the user’s body. Do not touch the wheelchair or adaptive equipment (cane, crutches, walker, etc.) unless invited in by the user or if you are a close family member or friend. It is not there for others to “rest on.” That includes leaning on arm rests and push bars or pushing them without consent. Think about how awkward it would be if someone came over and leaned on your shoulder or rested their hands on your upper back. That’s what it feels like for many wheelchair users.
Say “excuse me” in the event an accidental ‘bump’ with a wheelchair or adaptive equipment occurs. I can not count the number of times many people do not watch where they are going and kick the back of my crutches when I am walking in public. Not only is this a hazard that nearly causes me to trip, resulting in injury, but it’s just as rude as brushing or bumping into someone’s body. If you would say ‘excuse me’ when brushing into someone’s body accidentally, you should also say it when bumping against a wheelchair or piece of equipment.
As much as possible, do not stand directly in front of a wheelchair user or tower over them because you have the height advantage. Imagine being seated with a bunch of back pockets in your face – it’s not a comfortable experience. And please do not pat people wheelchair users on the head. Just because we are sitting lower than you, we are not children…. or dogs. Save that for your pets when you get home.
Many wheelchair users are respectful of your personal space when they experience respect for their own space in return. Think about your personal bubble – if you wouldn’t want someone bursting into your personal space bubble, use restraint before bursting into the bubble of someone with a disability. Though you may think you are trying to be helpful or trying to build rapport, it’s better to err on the side of caution.Don’t burst our bubble – respect the personal space of those with disabilities. When in doubt, ask! Most of us won’t bite and it’s better to know for sure what someone is comfortable with than to breach trust by breaking into someone’s space.
Photo courtesy of Flickr creative commons.