Many individuals have all the right intentions when speaking with someone who happens to be disabled. However, there is often room for improvement. Nobody is to blame really. Society doesn't elaborately or adequately explore how we should communicate with the different types of individuals we come across in the world on a daily basis. As a community of individuals with disabilities, it’s up to us to inform other individuals about how we want to be treated.
Lesson One: Consider comfort. Although someone in a wheelchair may look comfortable because they are sitting, that isn't necessarily the case. When you are speaking or otherwise interacting with a person in a wheelchair, focus on the distance and height differences between the two of you. Stand somewhat close by, but not directly above anyone. Doing to can cause them to have to raise their head and/or strain their neck to you to see you. This can truly cause that individual aching neck pains from this strenuous action. So grab a seat, get at eye level, and enjoy a much more personable and potentially even bonding conversation.
Lesson Two: Speak respectfully. By this, I mean speak to the person in the wheelchair not to the person assisting them, should they gave one. Although the person with the disability may have assistance, their vocal chords likely work just fine, and it is polite and respectful to engage in conversation with them initially and individually. Then, you can determine whether or not you need to address their assistant. As a good rule of thumb, just do not assume anything. This brings me to my third point, or the last "lesson".
Lesson Three: Get to know someone. When you get to know someone, you should never assume, you should first observe. Gather information to act upon. This is how relationships are built. Interact with a person, not a disability. In the same reason you don't want your identity wrapped up in one facet of your life, neither does anyone else. Enough said.
Use these learned skills when meeting a person for the first time, regardless of their station with regard to mobility. Assumptions hurt feelings, or can be taken wrongly, and result in a lot of unnecessary commotion. When your state of mind resonates an ethic of equality, the you will most likely be reassured that there is not much extra work or change in communication style needed, when speaking to someone in a wheelchair. Good natured, old fashioned and respectful ways of speaking will do just fine. Communication etiquette is a learned skill that is very valued and important to the individuals who make up our global wheelchair community. Together, we can build bridges.