See, the problem with people who aren’t in wheelchairs writing about and/or drawing people who are in (manual) wheelchairs is that the people who aren’t in wheelchairs tend to think that there’s only like four movements that you do in a wheelchair. You can either push forward, push backwards, turn left, or turn right. And the characters do it all while sitting up straight or bending forward so that their noses touch their knees.
But the amount of motions that I go through on a daily basis are actually amazing. And the body language…you could write an entire book on the body language of someone in a wheelchair.
Like right now, I’m more relaxed, so I’m slouching slightly. I’ve got my right foot on its footrest and the left foot on the ground. Every so often, as I stop to think of something to say, I’ll push with my left foot to rock the chair slightly.
But usually, I sit mostly upright with my upper-half slightly leaned forward. When I’m wheeling across the campus, especially if I have somewhere that I need to be, I’ll lean and shift my weight in whichever direction it is that I’m going. It helps make the wheelchair glide that much more smoothly. How far/dramatically I lean depends on how fast I’m going, the terrain, if there’s a turn, etc.
Plus people who don’t use wheelchairs don’t understand the relationship between grabbing the wheels, pushing, and the chair moving. Like I’ve seen things written or have seen people try to use a chair where the character/that person grabs the wheel every single second and never lets go to save their lives. Which isn’t right. The key is to do long, strong, pushes that allow you to move several feet before repeating. I can usually get about ten feet in before I have to push again. It’s kind of like riding a scooter. You don’t always need to push. You push, then ride, then push, then ride, etc.
And because of this, despite what many people think, people in wheelchairs can actually multitask. I’ve carried Starbucks drinks across the campus without spilling a single drop. Because it’s possible to wheel one-handed (despite what most people think), especially when you shift your weight. And if I need to alternate between pushing both wheels, I’ll just swap hands during the ‘glide’ time.
I’ve also noticed that people who don’t use wheelchairs, for some reason, have no idea how to turn a wheelchair. It’s the funniest thing. Like I see it written or, again, have seen people ‘try’ a wheelchair where they’re reaching across their bodies to try to grab one wheel and push or they try to push both wheels at the same time and don’t understand. (For the record, you pull back a wheel and push a wheel. The direction that you’re going is the side that you pull back.)
Back to body language. Again, no idea why most people think that we always sit upright and nothing else. Maybe when I’m in meetings or other formal settings, but most of the time, I do slightly slouch/lean. As for the hands…A lot of writers put the wheelchair user’s hands on the armrests but the truth is, most armrests sit too far back to actually put your hands on. There are times when I’ll put my elbows on the edges of the armrests and will put my hands between my legs. Note: Not on my lap. That’s another thing that writers do but putting your hands in your lap is actually not a natural thing to do when you’re in a wheelchair, due to the angle that you’re sitting and the armrests. Most of the time, I’ll just sort of let my arms loosely fall on either side of the chair, so that my hands are next to my wheels but not grabbing them. That’s another form of body language. I’ve talked to a few people who have done it and I do it myself. If I’m ever anxious or in a situation where I want to leave for one reason or another, I will usually grip my handrims – one hand near the front , one hand near the back. And if I’m really nervous, you’ll find me leaning further and further into the chair, running my hands along the handrims.
Also, on a related subject – a character’s legs should usually be at 90 degree angles, the cushion should come to about their knees, and the armrests should come to about their elbows. You can always tell that an actor is not a wheelchair user when their wheelchair isn’t designed to their dimensions. (Their knees are usually inches away from the seats and are up at an angle, the armrests are too high, etc.) Plus they don’t know how to drive the chair.
Let’s see, what else? Only certain bags can go on the back of the chair without scraping against the wheels, so, no, your teenagers in wheelchairs can’t put their big, stylish, purses on the back. We don’t always use gloves since most gloves actually aren’t that helpful (as stated above, wheeling is a very fluid motion and gloves tend to constrict movements). Height differences are always a thing to remember. If you’re going for the “oh no, my wheelchair is broken” trope, nobody really has ‘flat’ tires anymore thanks to the new material for the wheels but it is possible to have things break off. We use the environment a lot. I always push off of walls or grab onto corners or kick off of the floor etc. Wheelchair parkour should really become a thing.
This is all of the physical things to think about. I could write a thesis on the emotional treatment of your characters with disabilities. But for now, I think that I’ll stop here. For my followers in wheelchairs, is there anything that I left out?
Also why isn’t wheelchair parkour a thing? Somebody make wheelchair parkour a thing.
This is all REALLY GOOD and I wish something like this would be in more art guidebooks and classes.
One thing I’d add is that some of the posture stuff here is specific to wheelchair users who have the right chair; a lot of people (hi, past me) have to use chairs that aren’t at all the correct size, and that’s going to change posture, ease of use, etc. That’s such a broad variable that it’s probably useless to try and cover here, but it’s something to be aware of and research if it seems relevant to a character.
My mom and I both have chronic pain, and we sometimes use a wheelchair if we’re going to be doing a lot of walking, trading off when necessary. The most important thing I’ve noticed is that you immediately stop being a person.
People would cut in front of us in line all the time. It’s like being invisible. You also get familiar with looking at everyone’s butts if you’re in a crowded area.
Note to anyone who goes into building or interior design: tight corners and pathways are the worst.
More specific note to people who design haunted houses: I know it needs to be dark and somewhat small. But it sucks to run into walls every few seconds because we can barely see the exits, which also barely have room for a wheelchair. Please remember that non-able-bodied people want to have fun, too!