Disability Etiquette – Respecting Wheelchair Users

Perhaps the only student with a disability in his school back then, Oh Boon Keng is no stranger to insensitivity in his younger days. His recounting of his school life [...]

Perhaps the only student with a disability in his school back then, Oh Boon Keng, 31, is no stranger to insensitivity in his younger days. His recounting of his school life highlights the importance of inculcating disability etiquette in young children at an early age.

All of us have been living under a “new normal” ever since COVID-19 hit our shores. For me, it has been a “new normal” since the time I was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a genetic condition that leads to the progressive weakness and degeneration of muscles. Every time my muscles got weaker, it means that I had to adapt to another “new normal” again.

To move around, I need my wheelchair. And I remember getting my first motorised wheelchair in secondary two.

Perhaps it was due to the novelty of seeing one, a playful classmate started to meddle with the removable battery at the back of my wheelchair. As if it was a toy, he kept taking it out and putting it back on. I was worried that he would damage my wheelchair – my means of mobility.

“Stop, don’t spoil my wheelchair!” I recalled telling him two to three times whenever he toyed with the battery, but he would always ignore my pleas. I felt annoyed and helpless as I could not do anything to stop him.

Thinking back, I should have reported his actions to the teacher. I cannot recall why I did not do that, probably it was because I just panicked.

But I suppose I did do a right thing by not provoking the classmate further with my words or actions. I told myself that he would stop eventually after he got bored of his actions. I believe things could have gotten worse if I had reacted, which may aggravate him to find ways to tease me even more.

Tell someone, stop the behaviour

Although this experience might seem trivial, the feeling of helplessness in those moments stayed with me for a long time. As a person with disability, it is very easy to feel lost in such circumstances, especially when you cannot physically protect yourself. But physical inaction or not responding immediately does not equate to giving in to the person who bullies or harasses others. You can still take action to stop the behaviour by informing the relevant authorities or a trusted person, such as a teacher or a friend, about it.

Educating the public

Something which I feel is important is also promoting awareness of disability etiquette amongst the public. By creating opportunities for the public to interact with persons with disabilities, it can enable them to understand us better. During my primary and secondary school years, representatives from social service organisations visited my school to conduct a disability awareness talk. They also spoke to my teachers to raise awareness of my condition. This is very helpful in explaining my needs to my teachers and classmates as I was shy and did not know how to do so back then.

Despite some of these incidents, my educational journey was still a fruitful one. Along the way, I met great classmates in polytechnic who made the effort to include me in class activities. These are friends who would accompany me through long breaks between classes, instead of doing what most others do – travelling farther for lunch or to simply chill out. Sometimes, they will also take me to places outside of campus that are within walking distance. These are some of the fond memories I have of school and for my friends’ gestures to include me – I truly appreciate.

The behaviour of Boon Keng’s secondary school classmate may have been due to a lack of understanding on disability etiquette. The onus then lies on us adults to be a role model and educate our children on the right way to treat PWDs respectfully. Here are some general guidelines to follow:

Tips to interacting with wheelchair users:

  • Speak directly to the wheelchair user, instead of their caregiver.
  • Ask before giving assistance. Don’t be embarrassed or upset if they decline your help.
  • Don’t touch, push or lean on the wheelchair without their permission.
  • Converse at eye level, whenever possible or when it is a long conversation, but there is no need to bend down. Grab a seat if there is a chair nearby.
  • Make sure the environment is accessible.
  • Keep designated seats, toilets and parking lots available for them.

If you see a friend or someone else being bullied or harassed:

  • Without putting yourself at risk, step forward to firmly ask the one who is bullying or harassing others to stop his/her behaviour.
  • If the situation is not safe for you to step in, go get help.
  • Tell a trusted adult or person of authority about what you have seen or heard.
  • Be a friend to the person being bullied or harassed to let them know that they are not alone.

If you would like to find out more about how you can interact with persons with disabilities, sign up for our virtual Disability Etiquette Talk on 10 September 2021 at 10.30am.