It's usually human nature to know how to greet a fellow human being. After all, we are of the same species, so we innately know how to communicate with one another because of this fact. Greetings often vary from culture to culture, but a handshake, smile, or nod generally works as a universal greeting. However, when greeting someone with a physical disability, such as a spinal cord injury (SCI), it can be confusing for people who aren’t familiar with wheelchair etiquette.
While we’re sure this has been a problem for able-bodied individuals for centuries, we’re just glad that more people are interested in understanding proper wheelchair and disability etiquette than ever before. Whether you’re greeting someone who can’t move their arms or may not have use of their hands, we’ve got you covered. This way you’ll know exactly what to do the next time you meet someone who uses a wheelchair.
Individuals with No Arm Movement
We're going to start out with one of the most common concerns about greeting someone with a disability: how to greet someone who has no arm movement. You'll typically see people of this mobility level using a wheelchair with wider armrests, allowing their arms to rest in a natural state. These individuals will not raise their arms to shake your hand.
When meeting someone like this, refrain from bringing out your hand since they won’t be able to match it. Instead, a smile and a nod is a fine alternative. Many high-level quadriplegics prefer this type of greeting as their standard greeting when meeting new people. Note: Do not touch their shoulder unless you know them.
Individuals with Limited Arm Movement
It is common for people with limited arm movement to try to extend their arms when greeting you and will attempt to shake your hand. Many people with disabilities are proud and want to try to do something (even if they know it may appear somewhat awkward). If you happen to meet someone like this, wait for their cue if you aren’t sure how to proceed.
Usually, when someone with this level of mobility tries to extend their arm, a good response (even if the arm hasn’t moved much) is to extend your arm and grab their hand in a gentle manner, to shake it. Some prefer to use a fist bump greeting if they can’t move their arm that much (connecting fist-to-fist), although this greeting is slowly going out of fashion.
Individuals with Arm Movement But No Hand Mobility
When someone has full arm movement but can't open their hand, this can be a conundrum for people who’ve never met anyone with this level of mobility: You want to shake their hand because their arm is at your level, but then their hand isn't opening.
When you meet someone like this, try to shake their hand as normally as possible by grabbing their hand on the outside as well. When you do this, just be sure that your grab/shake is very light — more of an inference to the motion than an actual handshake.
Individuals with Normal Upper-Body Mobility
When greeting someone with normal arm movement who is seated, you may be concerned about them being at a physically lower level than you. Some wheelchair users actually prefer when others get down on their knees (or crouch) to get to their level to shake hands without making them reach upward.
However, there are some wheelchair users that don’t like it when you get down to their level. They don’t think it's necessary and feel uncomfortable with strangers going down on their knees. Always follow their cue. Humans tend to be very good at silent communication.
We applaud your desire to want to approach someone with a disability with the most respect possible! We hope more people out in the world desire to do the same. Please like and share this post with as many people as possible and share any additional tips you may have as a person with a disability below.
Written by Tiffiny CarlsonSince 1998, Tiffiny Carlson has been a prolific commentator on all things SCI in a number of prominent magazines, blogs and websites. Hailing from Minnesota, she was the SCI Columnist for New Mobility Magazine for 13 years and she currently works as the Executive Director of SPINALpedia, one of the leading websites for people with SCI to share videos and stories. She has been a C5-6 quadriplegic since a diving accident 24 years ago. Tiffiny has also been a fierce advocate for SCI research. In 2016, the Morton Paralysis Fund honored her for her work. While all SCI topics interest her, dating, love and the business of relationships have always been where her passion lies the most.
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