Reflection on genuflection
April 24, 2012 9:25 PM   Subscribe

Is it rude to kneel down when speaking to someone in a wheelchair?

By kneel down, I mean, down on one knee. I have been thinking about the proper etiquette for some time now, and here is where I'm at: Most of my friends are taller than I - I am 5'3", most of my friends are over 6' (I have no idea how this came to be.), and as such, most of them will sit down when speaking to me. Obviously, this facilitates better communication; but, it also eliminates their "power" position. I have never asked them to behave in this manner, but it started to dawn on me that I preferred this. When we are in situations where seating is not available, my friends will tilt their heads down - this usually eliminates eye contact, which, to me, is a bummer. I know what you're going to ask, "Do my friends ever kneel down to talk to me?". The answer is no. This is why I think it would be rude to kneel down when speaking to someone in a wheelchair. But, I come full circle to the notion that communication is easier when there are not major height differences. Perhaps I am just really over-thinking. Thoughts???
posted by AlliKat75 to Human Relations (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I worked a few summers at a camp for disabled kids and my opinion is -- no. You're facilitating communication and that's not a problem.

However, never touch someone in a chair on the head. And never sit in an empty wheelchair unless you're disabled yourself.
posted by bardic at 9:27 PM on April 24, 2012

Kneeling seems weird... I think it'd be less awkward to just move the conversation to a place where you can sit.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:32 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ask. Not everyone in a wheelchair will have the same opinion, and virtually none of them will get mad at you for asking (and the ones who do are just looking for a reason to be pissed off, so screw 'em).
posted by Etrigan at 9:32 PM on April 24, 2012 [8 favorites]

Waiting tables in YNP we received surprisingly good training on how to deal with this situation. They trained you to get down to the level of a handicapped person if it aids communication but NOT to make it a big deal or obvious. I'm not one to unnecessarily sit down next to someone at one of my tables but I would squat if people, any people, seemed to be soft spoken or physically uncomfortable looking up at me.

I never looked at is as a power thing but maybe others do. I'd make things as casual as possible and simply facilitate the conversation/interaction as best I could without drawing undue attention to their chair or making it seem like I'm singling them out. If that means standing up for a brief chat or popping a squat next to them for a longer discussion, so be it.

Good intentions goes a long way and I like to think people who have the right intentions at heart tend to be quite visible to people who may be used to being condescended to or, god forbid, ridiculed or ignored.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:46 PM on April 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Put yourself at eye level for longer conversations but make sure you maintain eye contact if you are standing up. If you can, move away a little so that they don't have to look up at you.
posted by unliteral at 9:53 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a bit shorter than you. As a nurse, I used to kneel or squat all the time to talk to patients in wheelchairs, whether they typically used a wheelchair or not. It was just a matter of closing the distance. Nobody ever objected but that doesn't rule out the possibility it was a problem - casually asking, "Mind if I kneel?" is probably a good idea.

Bardic - ew, people do that? Is it because the kids are kids, or because they're using wheelchairs? I wouldn't want someone patting my head just because it was in easy reach. How rude!
posted by gingerest at 10:02 PM on April 24, 2012

In the short time that I used a wheelchair I found people standing over me a most disagreeable experience. Bend, kneel, sit, whatever, but allow the person the dignity of talking to you face to face.
posted by alonsoquijano at 10:23 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm in a wheelchair and have absolutely no problem with people standing while they talk to me. It would feel odd if someone crouched down to talk to me. I am self confident and don't feel intimidated by taller people!
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:26 PM on April 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

A friend of 21 years is in a chair and the only time I would bend down, or alter my position in any way to talk to him would be in loud bars. We always had favorite places because there were little alcoves, spaces with seats where we could equalise the height distance for longer chats, but the first drink while we were waiting for others to join us, there is no way he would have been comfortable if in front of the entire bar I knelt to speak to him.

Crucially we never spoke about this, it was just observing how he behaved and he was someone who wanted the world to treat him as if there was no chair (which causes other problems sometimes but he's worth it). Anyone joining our group would immediately have noticed the body language of the rest of the group, we tended to speak slightly louder and stay back so we weren't hovering over him like mother hens, and then as soon as the majority were together we'd take over a space where we could sit down of move onto somewhere else.
posted by Wilder at 1:46 AM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Been around wheelchairs a lot and never considered kneeling down.

I wouldn't kneel/crouch to talk to an adult shorter than me (which is 95% of people) and I wouldn't to someone sat in a chair at a table - so I can't see why I would, in most situations, for someone on wheels.

In my head it feels wrong - you're altering your behaviour solely because of someone else's disability, when most of the time, in my experience, people in chairs would prefer you just to treat them like you would anyone else.

Also, crouching or kneeling is something I might do to talk to children - which furthers the oddness.
posted by Hobo at 3:07 AM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bardic - ew, people do that? Is it because the kids are kids, or because they're using wheelchairs? I wouldn't want someone patting my head just because it was in easy reach. How rude!

I'm a quite short adult woman (not disabled) and you'd be shocked how many people feel comfortable touching my head/hair. Mostly casual acquaintances at work, which to me is even more shocking.
posted by arnicae at 3:52 AM on April 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

I use a wheelchair. Kneel, don't kneel, I don't care. Just look me in the eye and talk to me, not my friend. People who talk to my companion instead of me earn them my Manson Glare of Eternal Hate.
posted by angrycat at 5:03 AM on April 25, 2012 [6 favorites]

I don't think it matters what the taller person does with their legs so much, as long as the rest of their posture is respectful. I've seen caregivers do the mommy-style bending at the hip, hands on the knees "who's mommy's good girl?" posture to people in wheel chairs and it always struck me as awkward and disrespectful.
posted by gjc at 6:01 AM on April 25, 2012

1. If there's a chair nearby and the conversation might be more than a minute or two, sit down.
2. If no chairs, but carpet/cushions, sit if you'll be comfortable down there - the disabled person can usually lean forward.
3. No spare chairs etc, stand in front, a bit further away than you might with an upright person so neck strain is minimised, and make eye contact. Try not to stand to one side.

The person in the wheelchair is aware of your discomfort while crouching/kneeling/bending position. It's an easier conversation if both participants are comfortable.
posted by arzakh at 7:24 AM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I interact with lots of people in wheelchairs, it's my job after all. For me it depends on the situation. If I'm walking around their house, making suggestions, etc, then I'm standing. If they're older, more frail, or if it's a more personal conversation (or a more social conversation, e.g. talking about their kids or something) then I'll often kneel and/or pull up a chair so they're not craning their neck.

More importantly, imo, is touching it/them. If you are in a conversation or situation where you'd put your hand on my shoulder as a non-chair user, then do that. (I'm not saying touch people, I'm saying if the situation merits it). Don't assume you should touch their chair and definitely don't stand behind them and try to talk around them, unless you're pushing them or controlling their power chair and you're having a conversation.

As long as you're not taking a "stewardship" attitude, or talking down, it's not rude. If they would prefer you do something different, they'll tell you.

TL;DR--if it's quick, relatively impersonal, stand up. If you're showing them something, having an intimate conversation, kneel and make level eye contact.
posted by TomMelee at 8:29 AM on April 25, 2012

For short conversations, stepping or leaning back a bit so the wheelchair user can see you without looking up is fine. For longer conversations, if there's a chair available, pull that up. (Yes, even including an empty wheelchair, as long as you don't start making dumb racing jokes.) If no chairs are available, try the Asian squat or genuflect. But more importantly, don't lapse into a high pitched voice or baby talk. It's generally ok to touch non-condescendingly (in fact, most people are afraid to touch wheelchair users, so buck the trend) but never move a person or any of their limbs without permission.

When I roll into a room
Just as cool as you please
To a man
The fellows stand
Fall down on their knees
posted by Soliloquy at 8:56 AM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I work in a hospital with lots and lots of people in wheelchairs or who are sitting in chairs and can't get up. I almost always squat or find a chair to talk to them. This is partly so that the rest of the ward don't get to listen to our conversation, but it's also to change the dynamic of the professional standing over the patient. I don't like this and I try to avoid it.

In another context it might be seen as patronising or inappropriate.

If you were going to be doing this a lot then you should also consider what makes your back happy.
posted by kadia_a at 9:01 AM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

(I should clarify, it's ok to sit in a wheelchair available for general usage. Never sit in someone's personal wheelchair or move it away from them. Kids may ask politely for a joyride, though.)
posted by Soliloquy at 3:25 PM on April 25, 2012

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