Business Resources and Services from Disability Awareness Author / Speaker Gary Karp

Workplace Disability Etiquette

Wheelchair Users

A wheelchair user shown from behind wheeling on a shoreline pathFor the outside observer, a person using a wheelchair seems "confined." But to them, the wheelchair is a precious means of active and independent living

In reality, it does not confine – it liberates.

The image typically seen of wheelchair is of the "hospital style" chair – chrome, folding, sideguards with armrests, large casters, and footrests than extend well

Purple lightweight modern wheelchairBut wheelchair design has made tremendous advances. They are extremely sophisticated tools, highly customized for the individual according to their body, their disability, their strength, and their chosen lifestyle. And they are much better looking! – conveying an image of active independence rather than being a "medical patient."

Here are some key points of disabilty etiquette for when you encounter a wheelchair user.


  • Wheelchairs are personal space, an extension of the body.A Little More
  • A properly fitted wheelchair is not a burden to use.A Little More
  • Pushing a person in a wheelchair is a skill.A Little More
  • For extended conversations, if possible, sit at eye level.A Little More
  • Ensure that social activities are accessible.A Little More
  • Now that offices are widely accessible with usable restrooms, wheelchair users are much more fully available to the workforce. In the past, it was only these artificial, external obstacles that prevented organizations from tapping this valuable human resource.

    It wasn't the disability that was the problem – it was the steps and the narrow doors.


    Work is about more than "essential tasks." All employees must be able to participate in company events or other work-related social gatherings.
    Save the wheelchair user's neck, but don't worry about it if you're have a brief chat. As ever, if you're not sure, ask.
    A manual wheelchair user has a special sensitivity to the surface ahead, to turning radius, and to the location of their toes. They might also have delicate balance, so to push the chair requires some special understanding.
    Whether manual or power, full time wheelchair users (should) get professional support in specifying the chair that will optimize their mobility and not exhaust their daily energy.
    Touching the wheelchair is an intimate gesture, as if you're touching a person's arm. If you touch a chair that is in motion you could endanger the rider!