When you think about mobility disabilities, there’s a good chance that you picture a person using a wheelchair. That’s partially because wheelchairs are a common example of assistive technology: About 2.7 million U.S. adults use wheelchairs, and that number is expected to grow significantly due to demographic trends.
March 1st is International Wheelchair Day, which celebrates the positive impact that wheelchairs can have on the lives of their users. To mark the occasion, we’re addressing some of the most common misconceptions about wheelchairs and mobility-related conditions.
1. Myth: People are “bound" to their wheelchairs.
This myth is persistent, but it certainly isn’t logical. Think about it: You’re using a computer or a mobile device right now. Are you “bound" to your device?
Wheelchairs are a tool, not a burden. Many people can get in and out of their wheelchairs without assistance, and many are not chronically ill or paralyzed. Even when a person requires assistance to get out of their wheelchair, they’re still an individual who deserves respect.
Unfortunately, the term “wheelchair bound" remains fairly common, and media representations of people who use wheelchairs are often based on harmful stereotypes. Remember, people in wheelchairs can live happy, successful lives; they’re not defined by their mode of transportation, any more than you’re defined by your car or bicycle.
2. Myth: Accommodating employees who use wheelchairs is always expensive.
Every business can afford reasonable accommodations — that’s why they’re called “reasonable" accommodations.
A 2020 survey from the Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network (JAN) found that 56% of workplace accommodations for employees with disabilities cost absolutely nothing. Of the remaining accommodations, the average cost was about $500.
It’s true that adding a wheelchair ramp or fixing an elevator can be expensive in some situations. However, small businesses can get help: The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) operates a website listing tax credits for businesses who employ people with disabilities or make their physical offices more accessible.
And employing a diverse workforce has profound businesses for organizations and workplaces. According to a systematic review published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, organizations that hire people with a diverse range of abilities see improvements in customer loyalty, employee loyalty, and profitability.
3. Myth: People who use wheelchairs always need help.
People who don’t have disabilities often feel that they have a responsibility to help people who use assistive devices. That’s not always the case, and unsolicited “help" can be demeaning and offensive.
Generally, you shouldn’t try to help a person in a wheelchair unless they ask for assistance. Depending on the situation, you might ask them if they’d appreciate help, but respect their response — and don’t touch their wheelchair unless they ask you to do so.
4. Myth: Thanks to non-discrimination laws, all buildings are wheelchair-accessible.
It’s true that non-discrimination laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require most public and private organizations to make reasonable efforts to accommodate people with disabilities.
But while organizations can face serious penalties for ADA violations, wheelchair accessibility remains a serious problem in the United States. Title III of the ADA requires businesses to remove architectural barriers when it is “readily achievable" to do so, but many accommodations don’t meet this threshold.
Unfortunately, that’s also true for private residences. A 2015 report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that fewer than 1 percent of all U.S. housing units were equipped with features that would allow a person who uses a wheelchair to live independently.
5. Myth: Website accessibility isn’t important for people with mobility impairments.
Some people who use wheelchairs may browse the internet with a keyboard and mouse, while others might use assistive technologies or a keyboard alone (with no mouse). The scope of disabilities is exceptionally wide, and the goal of digital accessibility is to make the internet more useful for every type of person.
Website accessibility is important for everyone, and that certainly includes people with physical disabilities. And when organizations make a commitment to inclusive design, they send a powerful, positive message to their entire audience.