Sometimes people feel awkward when meeting someone in a wheelchair, which is understandable. The fear of saying something insensitive or being distracted by the person’s disability is entirely normal. People give power to the fear around disabilities by making it seem like these people are very, very different from everyone else. However, a lot of us have used adaptive devices and don't even know it. Most people use glasses to read better. We ride bikes or use cars to reach long distances. Most of us had braces on our teeth when we were in middle school. Not to mention the minor injuries that temporarily put people on crutches or in casts. The point I am trying to make is that sometimes people (with or without disabilities) need external support to get through their day.
Here are a list of things to keep in mind when interacting with someone using an assistive device such as a wheelchair. Most of these come from the years I spent using adaptive devices but also from conversations I have had with people who have disabilities.
Avoid assumptions. People use wheelchairs for a lot of different reasons. Some people need wheelchairs for only long distances while others are completely non-ambulatory. Some people are in wheelchairs due to injuries, while others have illnesses and have varying levels of function from week to week.
Speak directly. Unless the wheelchair user is unable to answer for herself; it is rude to ask her caretaker or friend a question that should have been directed at her. Also, there is no need to speak slow or loud unless the person you are talking to asks you to.
Get on eye level. It can be very intimidating for the other person to be looked down at for an entire conversation. Unless you are quite short; get on your knees or pull up a chair to talk.
Don’t draw attention Well meaning comments such as “Wow, look at those wheels fly!” or “Hey, speedy!” can be meant in great fun but in excess can be annoying to the wheelchair user because it is drawing attention to the disability.
Don't be afraid to offer help. If you see a wheelchair user struggling to open a door or reach something on a high shelf; it is perfectly acceptable to ask if they need help. If they don't, they'll say no.
Don't ask the question. It is always unacceptable to walk up to a stranger and ask them what is wrong with them and for-the-love-of-god don't ask if they will ever walk again. It doesn’t matter what infirmity they possess that sets them apart, it’s just not good manners. It's really mean to be annoying to someone who can't kick you.
Be Inclusive. When in a conversation with a group of people, don't stand in front of the person in the wheelchair. This blocks them out of the conversation. Try to remember to open up a circle more to include the person in the wheelchair.
Be Sensitive. Referring to a wheelchair user as anything other than a wheelchair user can sound condescending or insensitive. Labels such as Incapacitated, Crippled, Victim, and Invalid should never be used as they can sound belittling. Also, avoid the assumption that this person is courageous or some kind of martyr. They are just a person doing the best they can with the cards they've been dealt; they don't need to be put on some kind of pedestal.
Respect their space. The wheelchair is a part of that person’s space. Leaning on it (particularly if you are not even interacting with this person) or touching it without permission can feel like an invasion of personal space (This goes the same for any other adaptive device they may also be using.). Also, don’t ever push a wheelchair without the occupant’s permission. Be sensitive to the fact that the wheelchair user can not see you and has very little control over the chair while someone else is pushing. Because of this fact; don't be surprised or offended if they don't want you to push their chair if they do not know you very well.
Be thoughtful. If you are accompanying someone in a wheelchair to a public place, it’s always helpful to take note of where the ramps, elevators and wheelchair accessible bathrooms are.
Don't move the chair. If the wheelchair user transfers to a different seat (couch, bed, kitchen chair, etc.); don’t move the wheelchair without their knowledge, and especially don’t take a ride in it without their permission. Sometimes people have bladder catheters or IV bags attached to their chair (Ouch!). Also, they most likely can't get up and hunt you down to get their chair back.
The Parking Issue. Don’t park in the loading zone next to a handicap parking space. People who can’t stand usually do a sliding transfer from the seat of the car to their wheelchair which requires extra space beside the car (The space also can be used for unloading a ramp or lift.). If a wheelchair user comes back to their car and some one has parked in the loading zone; they have no way of getting back in their car and have to wait for you to get done shopping before they can go home. Also, if you have a handicap placquard but do not need a loading zone; try looking for non-handicap spaces close to the front of the building before resorting to parking in a space with a loading zone.
When you first befriend a person with a disability, it will feel like a big deal and maybe you will make a few accidental faux pas. However, with a little time, you'll forget about the disability and all of this stuff will become second nature.