I have been in a wheelchair since I was two years old, so I’ve had my fair share of weird and uncalled for questions. Whether it’s strangers on the internet or the cashier at the grocery store, people seem to feel privy to every detail of my life as a wheelchair user. I’ve gotten pretty good at brushing these comments off over the years, but it doesn’t make these interactions feel any less intrusive or embarrassing when they do occur. After all, I’m just trying to grab a bite to eat or get my errands done; engaging in casualties with strangers about my medical history or dating life is usually not on the agenda. 

With that being said, the following is a list of common questions and phrases I’ve heard one too many times. Make sure you stay clear of these next time you engage in a conversation with a wheelchair user, both for your sake and theirs! 

“What’s wrong with you?”

Or any variation of “what’s your disability?”, “why are you in a wheelchair”, etc. I am a very open person and if I know you (even if it’s not well), I’m happy to share my story with you. After all, my disability is a big part of my life and I love when people are genuinely curious and want to learn more. 

However, it is never appropriate for a stranger to ask these questions (and especially not when it’s their opening line). People with disabilities do not owe you answers just because you happen to be curious. Quite frankly, our diagnosis is none of your business and does not affect you in any way. 

Nonetheless, if you know someone with a disability and want to know more about them, try asking questions like “how does your disability affect you in your daily life?” or “are there ways I can better support you when we’re together?” These types of questions will prompt more engaging conversations and actually give you a chance to understand that person’s lived experience better. If they are comfortable sharing their diagnosis, they probably will, but remember it is personal information that they are not obligated to disclose to you. 

“Do you want to race?”

This one gets me every time! I know that my wheelchair may look fascinating to some people, but this device quite literally acts as my legs. As such, it is actually a pretty mundane part of my existence. I don’t sit up in my chair every morning ready to do donuts, pop wheelies, and whip down the sidewalk at max speed. It is simply an extension of my body that I use to navigate the world. 

So please, refrain from the bad dad jokes next time you meet someone in a wheelchair. I promise we’ve heard them all a million times before! 

“Can you have sex?”

In fairness, I have never received this comment in person, but I do ALL THE TIME online. Sometimes it’s on dating apps and sometimes it’s just one-off DM’s from strangers on Instagram, but in almost all circumstances it’s the first message they send. That’s right, not even a hello first. How charming! 

The bottom line is this: if you wouldn’t ask a non-disabled person that, don’t ask me. Consult google if you’re really that curious, but I don’t like sharing intimate details about myself with someone I have never met nor spoken to before. 

“You’re really pretty for someone in a wheelchair.”

This is one that confuses me, yet I also hear somewhat frequently. I think (maybe?) people are being well-intentioned here but it definitely comes across as a backhanded compliment. It would be much like saying “you’re pretty for a tall girl” or “you’re pretty for someone with red hair”. 

Just tell me I’m pretty, period. Beauty and disability are not mutually exclusive, and if I am the first pretty wheelchair user you’ve seen, then you need to double check your beauty standards, as well as the people / media you choose to engage with. There are so many beautiful people with disabilities in this world; you just have to open your eyes and look!

“It’s so nice to see someone like you out and about!”

These are usually the same strangers that tell me I’m “so brave” in the middle of the shopping mall, or what a big inspiration I am even though they’ve never met me before. Again, these comments are usually well intentioned but they do baffle me. I am a person that needs to eat just like you — of course I’m out getting groceries! 

If you see a disabled person while you’re in public and your first thought is that “it’s so nice to see them out”, I urge you to think about why you feel that way. Is it because your community isn’t that accessible so people with disabilities don’t have the opportunity to go out often? Or, have you been conditioned to believe that people with disabilities shouldn’t / don’t want to be active in their communities? Whatever the reason is, it is important to recognize that people with disabilities do not exist to be your source of inspiration for the day. We work, we go to school, we raise families, and we’re most certainly going to be out and about just as much as you are!

“Can I pray for you?”

I get this one the most. I have had so many encounters where people literally stop me in the middle of the street and start praying over me. Sometimes they don’t even ask, they just go for it! 

I always find these situations very awkward because again, they’re heart is in a good place, but I don’t necessarily want to be “healed”. Although people might assume that life in a wheelchair is terrible, I am extremely happy with my life and I wouldn’t change it for anything. 

With that being said, I think we need to stop assuming that disabled people are less fortunate just because of our differences. I remember one day I was walking home from class, and a random man came up to me and forcefully shoved a $20 bill into my hand because “I needed it more than he did”. I tried to hand it back to him, insisting I didn’t need it, but he swiftly ran away and left me with the money. Of course, a free $20 is absolutely nothing to complain about, but it does hurt to know that someone looked at me for less than one second and made the determination that my life was worse off than there’s. 

So hold off on the unsolicited prayers, money, and sympathy. It is never appropriate to assume someone’s life is so bad that they require your help.

portrait of tori hunter, brunette, smiling in her power wheelchair
About the Author

Tori Hunter is a writer and travel enthusiast, passionate about redefining the way we view accessibility and the disabled experience. She has worked alongside numerous organizations to help dismantle access barriers, and in her free time, she likes to share her adventures as a wheelchair user on her Instagram @torihunter.blog

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