This month Enhance The UK’s Zoe Lloyd debunks common myths about wheelchair users you and your organisation need to know.

If you’re seen getting out of your wheelchair and then walking, you’re a fraud! 

There are many wheelchair users who require their chair for longer distances or whose condition changes daily. They may be in a flare up where they require their wheelchair this week but didn’t need it at all last week. It’s important not to make assumptions about someone’s disability. Some users are ambulatory and some are non-ambulatory wheelchair users. People that cannot walk at all may also say they are a full-time wheelchair user. 

Young fit people using a wheelchair don’t need pushing around.

This entirely depends on their impairment. People may think that if someone looks fit and is in a manual wheelchair they can manoeuvre themselves all the time and be completely independent. Some users will be able to push for marathons and lift their own chair up into their car, but others may require assistance pushing over rough ground, slopes, and longer distances. Or perhaps all the time. 

Wheelchair users can’t swim.

Just because part of our body doesn’t work, or even a large percentage of it with tetraplegia perhaps, the feeling of being in water can be very therapeutic. Wheelchair users may come up with  a different technique for swimming or may even just want to be floating. The feeling of finally having your bottom free from a surface and being buoyant is incredible. 

Wheelchairs are free from the NHS: 

Standard ones are, yes. But most full time wheelchair users require a custom made chair. These cost anywhere from £3k to £30k. Disabled people can get a contribution from their local health service towards a new chair but the remaining balance, and then the maintenance fees, are down to the user. This can be very expensive and not an expenditure we take pleasure in! This is why it’s essential that people look after our wheelchairs and other equipment. Aside from the fact that when your essential mobility equipment is damaged, it’s the equivalent of a non-disabled person losing a leg!

If you can’t walk, you don’t have feeling in your legs. 

This is a common misconception. If someone cannot stand or walk, it doesn’t always mean paralysis is the reason. Someone may be able to move their legs and have full feeling but a joint/nerve/muscle condition might prevent them from being able to walk. 

I should always help a wheelchair user by pushing them up a hill.

This depends entirely on the person. Some will gratefully receive a push but others will be perfectly able to get themselves up the hill, even if it looks like they’re struggling!  The key to this is to ASK. Always ask someone if they’d like some assistance, and then ask HOW best to do it. Be led by them, rather than making the assumption you know what they want. This is the case for every scenario with every impairment. 

It’s ok if I go and get the food from the buffet/ do everything for the wheelchair user. 

Again, this is about asking the person what they’d prefer. Sometimes it’s impossible or impractical to get the wheelchair user into the room where the buffet is for example. Or they’re not bothered about choosing and just ask you to get them a plateful. 

However, it’s important to remember that we all feast with our eyes, and we can often miss out on the experiential part of something by others doing it for us. It’s nice to be a part of choosing food, choosing clothes, seeing what’s round the corner…. 

Wheelchair users are wheelchair bound/confined to a wheelchair.

This is common terminology and usually means someone cannot walk at all. However it’s factually incorrect. No one is bound to their wheelchair (in history they might have been so there are many negative connotations with this phrase). Every wheelchair user can get out of their wheelchair, be it via hoisting or transferring. They are not permanently confined or bound to it. 

I could never be in a wheelchair, I don’t know how you do it!

Well, none of us know what we can cope with until we’re challenged. It can be insulting to say I’d rather die than end up in a wheelchair. That makes the assumption that my life isn’t worth living. If that was how bad it really was, then there wouldn’t be any wheelchair users about. We all cope pretty well!  You change, adapt ways, find strength, challenge yourself, but ultimately find a way to enjoy our lives, even when in a wheelchair!