A wheelchair may be the most visible sign of a disability but it is important to remember that the wheelchair is a tool. The patron using a wheelchair may be able to walk with the assistance of crutches, canes, braces and other aids, and may be using the wheelchair because it is faster, to conserve energy, or to increase mobility and greater access.
Types of Wheelchairs
There are several forms of mobility aids that have wheels. The main three are motorized power (battery operated) wheelchairs, manual wheelchairs, and three-wheeled scooters.
- A person using a power wheelchair will generally not need to be pushed. Remember there might be a rare exception to this rule. Always ask the patron.
- A person using a scooter will not need to be pushed. Usually when the motor of a scooter is turned off it is very difficult to move. The patron, if they are transferring and there isn't room for the scooter by their chair, may wish to leave the scooter nearby. Never ride or try to "drive" a patron's scooter. This can be dangerous to you and other patrons.
- Individuals in manual chairs may or may not want assistance by having their wheelchair pushed. Always ask first. You will see a type of wheelchair, commonly known as sports chair, that doesn't have handles on the back of the chair. These chairs are definitely intended to be maneuvered by the person sitting in them and not by someone pushing. However, sometimes they may welcome an extra hand getting up steep inclines. Always ask first.
Remember these basic tips:
- Never lift, transfer, or carry a person in a wheelchair up or down a flight of stairs, or in and out of their seats. This could present a safety hazard for you and the patron.
- Don't assume the person using the wheelchair wants you to push it; ask him or her first.
- Don't lean, hang on, or touch a person's wheelchair. It is an extension of the person's body. If you bump into it, remember that a jolt may cause pain or discomfort.
- If a counter or ticket box is too high, come around to the customer side of the counter/box during your interaction.
- When pushing the wheelchair, be gentle and don't start, stop or turn corners abruptly. When going up or down a slope, warn the person in the chair.
- If you have to "bump" a chair up or down a curb or step, ask the individual what direction they prefer. Some may wish for you to lead so that you take the person and the chair backwards.
- Don't ever try to maneuver a chair with a person in it if you feel that you will lose control. Get assistance and use two people, if necessary.
- If a person is sitting or is short in stature, get on an eye to eye level if the conversation continues for more than a few minutes. Don't force someone to physically look up at you.
- Consider distance, weather and surfaces such a stairs, curbs or inclines when giving directions.
- Allow a person who uses a wheelchair or other mobility device to keep them within reach (whenever possible) if they transfer to a seat.
- Patrons using their own wheelchair will know how to operate it and most likely will not need much help. However, if it is one of your organization's wheelchairs, you should know how to operate the brakes and how to stabilize the chair so that it can't rock, tip, or move while the patron gets in or out. You may want to practice by using a wheelchair yourself or with a co-worker in it to access the seating area and restrooms.
- Whether or not someone transfers from his or her wheelchair or scooter into a theater seat is a decision always made by the patron.
- A wheelchair commonly know as a sports chair, doesn't have handles on the back of the chair. These chairs are definitely intended to be maneuvered by the person sitting in them and not by someone pushing them.
Use of Service Animals
The most common service animal is a guide dog, used by people who are blind. However, animals are more and more frequently used by a number of people with a wide variety of disabilities. Service animals are usually highly trained dogs, but don't be surprised to see other animals such as miniature ponies or birds. These animals are defined by their function, not their species. They can fetch dropped items, alert owners of sounds, calm a person experiencing anxiety, warn of an impending seizure, and pull wheelchairs. Never call or distract service animals away from their owners and do not pet them without asking first. Remember, they are working animals.
Providing Mobility Assistance for a Patron Who Uses a Walker, Cane or Crutches
- Offer your arm, never grab or take their free hand or arm. This could cause them to stumble or fall.
- Always ask the individual if they would prefer for you to stand to their right or left.
- Never grab a cane or walker to assist someone. If they utilize a cane, crutch or walker, the patron may be safer using those than holding on to you.
- Warn patrons about changes in level or texture of the floor. Be aware of modifying your pace. Walk slower, so that you aren't rushing the patron.
- Warn the patron about changes in light. If you are moving from an area that is brightly lit to a dark space, or vice-a-versa, give the patron's eyes time to adjust.
- Offer your arm when going up or down stairs or a ramp without handrails.
- Patrons who walk with assistive devices such as canes or walkers may need frequent rest stops. Be alert for any signs that the person is experiencing difficulty and be prepared to offer your assistance. Don't take offense if they refuse.
- If you are pushing someone in a wheelchair through a noisy area be aware that they may not hear you speak if you are directly behind them.
- Practice going through your route using a wheelchair and/or using a mobility aid such as a walker, crutch or cane. Use this perspective to suggest potential areas where rests or stops may be needed.
VSA Texas is always looking for people to join us in our goal of assisting arts organizations to achieve maximum accessibility.
Contact us for more information on how you can help.