How to Talk to Someone in a Wheelchair

Stylish Wheelchair

In my travels across the world, and in Canada, with the Canadian boccia team – a group of over 10 elite athletes in electric wheelchairs – a fairly frequent trend seems to be emerging.  Flight attendants, waiters, facility managers and other people we come across, immediately talk to the nearest person without a disability in the group.

For example, a waitress will ask the person beside me, or one of my teammates: “What would he like to order?”  I am really perplexed by this trend.  Is awareness of what disability is, really so low that people think that a person with a disability cannot communicate?

Our approach as a team is normally for the person without a disability to say: “I don’t know, ask him.”

My theory is that this happens because people are afraid that communicating may be difficult.  Boccia athletes do often have alternate ways of communicating that are not familiar to everyone.

It is annoying to be treated as not valuable, and from my perspective, there are two ways to counter this trend:

1.  People with disabilities should communicate actively and maybe even aggressively.  This is up to the individual person, finding a strategy that will work with their individual communication systems, that allows them to take charge of any situation.  This means having the communication device ready to go, and not relying on others to communicate for you.  If you communicate passively, you will be communicated to passively.

This also applies to people with disabilities who are verbal.  I know plenty of people with disabilities who can speak, who do not do so with active confidence.  If you are ready to communicate, and engage those around you with confidence, you will be engaged back.

2.  If you are communicating with a stranger who has a disability, do it with openness, curiosity, friendship and respect.  With this perspective in mind, the right words and actions will come, and the exchange will be highly positive.