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What Not to Say to Someone in a Wheelchair

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My husband is a paraplegic. He's also a great father, a loving spouse and an occasional marathoner. He gets around independently in a manual wheelchair. He has what is known as a T4/5 complete injury, but that's not something most people need to know. The main thing they need to know is he can do almost anything. He may not do it the same way you do, but he does it nonetheless.

An online acquaintance of mine recently used the term "wheelchair bound," a phrase all too frequently used, but scorned by the disabled community. I explained to her not only the fact that it wasn't politically correct, but that there are plenty of people with disabilities who are far from bound to their chairs. (We know quadriplegics who sky dive.) All this brought to mind the many amazing things that have been said to my husband during his almost 30 years in a chair. All things you most definitely should not say if you happen to encounter someone in a wheelchair. To wit:

"You're a Mets fan. Maybe that's why you're in a wheelchair."

OK, so the Mets have had a rough time of it the last few years, but must wearing a cap with the orange NY logo make you a target? This was actually said to my husband while waiting for a bus on the Upper West Side. His response was stunned silence. I mean how does one reply to a comment like that?

And speaking of buses, when my husband rides one in New York City, a seat bench is flipped up to make room for his wheelchair. On one occasion a woman of very ample size was asked to surrender her seat by the bus operator. Unhappy about being inconvenienced, she looked at him and said with disdain,

"You know, you're taking up three seats."

Unable to pass up such an irresistible straight line, he replied, "You're not doing so bad yourself."

Then there was the elderly woman in the supermarket who wagged her finger at him and offered this gem,

"That's what you get for going skiing!"

Sigh. Really, lady?

Or the woman in the drugstore, frail and using a cane, who asked my husband if she could reach anything for him from the shelf. "No," he said, "I'm fine."

"Neither one of us is fine," she replied. Gee, thanks.

As his wife, I'm not immune to it either. I've described a wedding we went to and had a colleague ask, "Oh, he can go out??" Or the time a co-worker (who had met my husband many times) and I were riding a bus that had stopped to pick up a wheelchair passenger. "Damn," he said, "I always get the wheelchair buses." I looked him squarely in the eye and said, "So do I." That was an awkward trip.

I could go on and on about the things you should not say. Most of it is really common sense. That online acquaintance who thought the term "wheelchair bound" was appropriate went on to ask, "Well, then what should I call him?"

I have an idea. How about Stephen?