Today we have a very special guest post from Gentrie Pool. We met Gentrie over four years ago when she volunteered to help out with our show in Fort Worth, Texas. Gentrie Pool, persons with disabilities advocate, holds her Masters of Science in Communication Studies from Texas Christian University with a focus on interpersonal communication with and about people with disabilities. And one her favorite human beings has been a wheelchair user since 1992. You can follow Gentrie on Instagram!
National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month
September is National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month. There are approximately 200,000 people living with spinal cord injuries (SCI) in the United States. Every 48 seconds in our country, a person becomes paralyzed. So, I’m gonna give you some tips on how to interact with a wheelchair user:
1. Don’t pat them on the head. I know it can be awkward trying to figure out how to greet them if they have no arm or hand movement but trust me, no grown man, and a lot of grown women really don’t want to be pat on the head.
2. If they can move their arms and not their hands, when they extend their hand to shake your hand, shake it like you would any other person. Doing the ‘daps’ thing is ok to okish. Depends on the person. An actual handshake is always fine…’they’ may not be able to open their hand but ‘you’ can still shake it normally.
3. Talk TO them, not to the person they are with about them. Make eye contact. If at a restaurant for example, if you want to know if a particular seating area is OK for them, ask them, not their companion.
4. Treat the chair as part of their body. So if you would not pile stuff on an abled bodied someone’s lap without asking first, don’t do it to a wheelchair user. As tempting as it may be, don’t hop on the back of their chair for a ride when they are moving unless invited to do so. If they are not using their chair, don’t just hop in it and play around without permission. Number one, you might just flip back and hurt and embarrass yourself. Number two, it’s not a toy. And it’s not a ride. It’s waaaaay more than that. And they cost a few thousand to about $70,000 depending. Respect it and the owner of it.
5. It’s always ok to ask if you can help them if you sense they may need it. Depending on the situation, they may decline. But they will ALWAYS appreciate the offer.
6. Accept that they may not go to some events or places if they feel like they are going to cause disruption, need more help than they are comfortable with receiving, etc. Don’t get frustrated with them. Even if you’re willing to help, that still doesn’t make it comfortable for them at times. On the flipside, don’t assume they don’t want to be included in things either. Just ask.
7. Do not judge them for being late. There’s so much that goes on with paralysis that you can’t even imagine so being late even with the best planning and with ample hands-on assistance happens quite a bit.
8. Quit telling them they are an inspiration for just getting out and doing everyday things. Not every wheelchair user wants to be your inspiration. And sometimes it comes off like, “Damn, your life must be shitty, but you go girl, look at you grocery shopping anyway. 🙄”
9. Did you know that most paralyzed people actually have some sensation? It may feel to them like they are wrapped in layers of duct tape, or it may only be burning pain, or it may just be pressure they can sense, but they may actually have varying degrees of sensation in various places. Maybe not.
10. Don’t assume that they can or can’t do something. Asking is perfectly fine.
11. Their spouse, significant other, parent, or whoever spends the most time with them helping them…needs more of a break than you could ever imagine. Don’t assume otherwise. Offer help if you feel moved to do so. And usually it’s more effective to offer a specific type of help rather than just asking if you can help. For example: offer to take out the trash, offer to help transfer the person in the wheelchair to the couch for them, etc. That extra pair of hands and brief break are appreciated more than you know. Sometimes they just want to be the spouse, significant other, parent, etc.
12. If you ever know of someone who experiences paralysis, keep in mind that this is a very common time for friends and family to desert them. Well, they tend to have a lot of visitors the first few weeks because it’s a hot topic in their circle. But then it stops. I have heard this over and over and over from paralyzed people. I can’t really even understand why. But don’t fucking do that. They are already dealing with enough, the last thing they need is to feel like they have to deal with it alone.
13. Don’t park in an accessible spot OR the hashmarks next￼ to it.. Besides being illegal, unless you’ve experienced it, you really have no idea the trouble this causes someone in a wheelchair. And those hashmarks? Are not for motorcycles. They are for wheelchair ramps, and space for a wheelchair to exit.
BONUS TIP: Try to avoid doing shit which will result in your own paralysis.. Because chances are, you won’t find it very fun if you break your neck or your back. #myneckmyback