View Full Version : A wheelchair user is moving around - how do I describe that?

01-24-2011, 12:08 PM
Maybe this belongs in Basic Writing Questions instead - but this seems like more of a specialized knowledge question than a grammar/structure one, so I decided to come here instead. Sorry if I guessed wrong!

Anyhoo, I have something of a dilemma with describing the way one my characters moves around. See, she uses a wheelchair. I'd like to describe the way she gets from Point A to Point B accurately, but I don't know any wheelchair users personally nor have I read many books featuring them, so I'm not sure what the right term would be.

So far all I've come up with are:

Wheeled - My personal favorite, since it's clear and not too silly-sounding, but I'm worried that it may be too focused on what she uses to get around. We rarely say someone "legged" across a room, after all.

Rolled - Focuses more on the action than the object, which is nice, but easily leads to mental images that are little more . . . Monty Python-esque than what I'm aiming for.

Walked - Draws the least attention to the chair, which fits her "so what if I'm disabled" attitude, but might lead some readers to picture her literally walking around. (It's a story full of characters who can, among other things, turn invisible and see through walls, so her suddenly getting up from her chair wouldn't be beyond reader expectations.)

So, help me decide. Any wheelchair users have a preferred term? Anyone's written wheelchair-using characters and come up with a good moving-around word?

01-24-2011, 03:00 PM
From my experience (I have a sister in a wheelchair), we usually would say wheeled, if we were being specific. Otherwise, we'd just use words like went. But that's everyday life, not book life ;)

I don't think I've ever said walked. It might fit your character, but it really wouldn't fit the situation. My sister is very active. She plays and coaches (sledge) hockey, played baseball, and did track event, but we would still never say walked.

Linda Adams
01-24-2011, 03:50 PM
Zoomed is another word. I've seen some ones that move pretty fast--the electric ones can be surprisingly fast.

01-24-2011, 05:54 PM
I'm a travel writer specializing in disabled adventure travel. My dad is my photographer, and he uses an ECV (electric scooter). I only refer to his mode of conveyance when it's relevant: "Use extra caution on the gangway when departing the ship in Juneau. Dad's very good at controlling the ECV, but the gangway was so steep he tipped over backwards." Otherwise, we "crossed the room" (as opposed to "I walked across the room" or "he rolled across the room").

Where it's relevant to the story, I'd probably use "wheeled" or "rolled." If she's in a hurry, I like "zoomed." If she's with a group of able-bodied people, I'd just say "they walked." But I would never say that she, alone, walked. And I would just avoid it whenever possible....she went to the window, she rushed to catch a bus or she hurried to his bedside.

Hope that helps a little!

01-24-2011, 06:27 PM
When you first introduce the character in the wheel chair, you might want to show her putting her hands on the wheels and rolling them forward, backward etc to establish her mode of operation. Afterwards, crossed, rolled, spun, wheeled, zipped, zoomed all work because the readers are now familiar with the operation.

Just my humble opinion as I have not written anything involving a character in a wheel chair and I wonder why??? Its a good plot device.

01-24-2011, 06:44 PM
I agree with the other posters that the words "wheeled" and "rolled" should be used as little as possible, when things like "she crossed the room" can be said. I also agree that a group of people including one in a wheelchair can "walk" somewhere, but never the wheelchair user by herself.

You'll need to be more descriptive when she's carrying something, because it will have to be on her lap, or her movement will be very slow, or someone will have to be pushing her.

It's my experience that people in wheelchairs who don't have someone pushing the chair will wear driving gloves outside to avoid getting the hands scratched up.

01-24-2011, 11:24 PM
Thanks, everybody! I guess I'll stick with "wheeled" and use "crossed" or "went" whenever they sound better. :]

Those are great tips, mtrenteseau - I hadn't even considered that about the gloves.

Kitty Pryde
01-24-2011, 11:32 PM
I'd go with more interesting verbs. My WIP has a MC who uses a wheelchair. He's a little action boy, not an adult woman, so it's a bit different. But he does a lot of zooming, careening, bumping over gravel, whizzing, racing, escaping, speeding, crashing, slinking, sneaking, crossing, going, traversing, flying downhill, taking off, accelerating, steering, hurtling, etc. Be creative!

I do say he "pushed himself" or "wheeled" a little bit, especially when it serves to point out to the reader how he's distinguished from his peers. I had about a zillion betas and none of them remarked on it--it doesn't really stick out IMO. Or if he would only give his wheels one or two pushes and then roll to his destination close by, I might say rolled. I agree that if he's traveling with friends who are on foot, it's cool to say "they walked".

Elias Graves
01-24-2011, 11:40 PM
Roll seems to be pretty common. Run is used a lot when in a hurry.
Where things get a little trickier is many of the day to day things we take for granted. Curbs, lack of sidewalks, weather, carrying things, etc. All become new challenges when you're on wheels full time. Imagine trying to keep a purse/briefcase, a shopping bag, cell phone or whatever balanced on your lap while using both hands to move yourself. It ain't easy!
Many users have backpacks and such to carry things, however, hand 30 pounds off the back of your chair and your center of gravity is shot. Can you say "concussion?"

If you're going to be in this characters head, a common (though not universal) occurrance is the onset of a "Oh God, there's another one staring at me" frame of mind. Defensiveness is common. Perhaps half of wheelchair users deeply resent people opening doors, offering to carry things and so forth.
Nearly all wheelchair users get very aggrivated when people who are having a converstaion with them continue to stand up. People in general don't like to be looked down upon while conversing. It's considered common courtesy.
Some users, however, develop quite the sense of humor about the situation; often cracking somewhat dark jokes about their condition, the use of the chair or circumstances in general.

Some other visual things you can use...
Dirty hands. Happens all the time.
Muddy tires
Stuck in the snow
Caught in the rain
A dress or coat covered in road grime


Elias Graves
01-24-2011, 11:44 PM
Absolutely the best way to get a crash course on life in a wheelchair is to do it. Get your hands on one and spend a whole day in it. Your eyes will be opened. We used to do that with therapy students all the time to give them firsthand knowledge of life in a chair. Borrow one from a relative or maybe a church. Rent one from a store.
If you are in an area that has any sort of a spinal cord injury support group, attend a meeting. You'll likely get enough stories to fill a book and probably an offer to borrow someone's backup chair.


Kitty Pryde
01-25-2011, 12:43 AM
Don't forget that, despite ADA, there are tons of places that aren't accessible. For instance, stores with really close shelves or displays. Or there might be a curb cut, but it's 25 meters away from the place you actually want to cross the street. The other day I had a friend in a wheelchair visit, and we went on a pub crawl in Hollywood at a bunch of new pubs and restaurants. The subway and the first bar were fine. The second bar involved a huge traverse to reach the door, and then asking 5 people to get up and move their chairs so he could get to an empty table, then 5 MORE people had to move their table so he could actually fit. Talk about making an entrance.

The third restaurant had two steps to the only entrance. That's it. Two steps. I'd never even noticed they were there before. The outside seating area was not raised, but it was too tight to fit a wheelchair. Anyways, we really wanted pizza so we sort of tipped his chair back and vaulted him up the steps (I think maybe they brought us a free appetizer in exchange for our daring entrance ;) ). If my friend were not so skinny or willing to be tossed around, or we were not so strong (and experienced in the ways of getting wheelchairs into places it seems they ought not be), we wouldn't have been able to go in. Something as easy as a pub crawl can be quite challenging.

01-25-2011, 06:42 AM
I'd go with wheeled, but self propelled could be used for variation. That's how the action is typically described in medical documentation (at least in my little corner of the world).

01-25-2011, 07:35 PM
I'm in a wheelchair and wheeled is a good choice, but personally I would say: "she pushed her wheelchair". I rarely use wheel when referring to propelling myself.
I would definitely avoid "rolled", to me it implies the chair is moving under it's own power, but I wouldn't get too caught up in word use in this situation, if your readers know she's in a wheelchair, any variation would be acceptable for variety sake.

Elias Graves
01-26-2011, 02:13 AM
It does open up some interesting doors for describing the sensation of pushing oneself in a manual chair. Out of breath, sweaty, bumpy, tippy, stuck, etc.

When I'm evaluating new chair models, I take them out in the community to test them in real world conditions. The opportunity for observing human behavior is priceless. Watching people get uncomfortable, nervous, unsure of themselves, mean, spiteful.....
The variety of reactions you get is immense. Some people genuinely want to help, others obviously have pity. Some are contemptuous and others merely curious. The reactions today are less intense than they were ten or fifteen years ago, but still there. It affords a good opportunity to draw behavior out of people.


01-26-2011, 03:33 AM
I wouldn't call myself an expert by any means because I'm only temporarily in a wheelchair for an injury, but here's what I've learned so far...

I don't know what the standard usage is in the long-term use community, but I usually completely disregard the existence of my wheelchair:

I rolled into the kitchen. (Just as I wouldn't say "I walked my legs in to the kitchen.")
I wheeled (or pushed) myself into the kitchen.
Kim wheeled (or pushed) me into the kitchen.
I careened through the living room to answer the phone.

Here are some things I've noticed:

Yes on the gloves. My hands get filthy. Also, I don't usually touch the wheels themselves because I have the handrims, but those somehow get nicked... so I've irritated my palms on jagged plastic.
Other people won't look me in the eye. Unless they're really paying attention, they tend to look somewhere vaguely over my head.
Other people, especially cashiers (I can't drive, so someone has to take me grocery shopping), won't address me, they talk to the walking person who is with me, as if they're my keeper and make all my decisions.
Mean people look at me like they think I'm lazy for sitting... or maybe, I'm bitter.
Genuinely well-meaning people immediately grab the back of my chair and start pushing me. I hate that! I know they're trying to help, but I'm not completely helpless... I can at least push myself. I feel like a baby in a stroller. It's tough enough having all these limitations with getting around, but when someone's pushing me, I can't control where I'm going, how fast, and invariably, they knock me into something. It's tough to explain to people that they need to let me do things on my own if I can without sounding ungrateful for the help. I've gotten into arguments about it.
On the same note, I get irate when people grab ME when I'm shifting from the wheelchair to somewhere else. I have enough upper body strength that I can do that myself in most cases, and I hate not having control over my movements. People end up hurting me when they just shove in and try to help without actually knowing what I need.
I have a little plastic (cause things spill) basket that I carry on my lap from room to room; otherwise, I can't transport more than one thing at a time, and nothing hot or that will spill onto my lap.
To some extent, I have to plan my routine. I don't know if this happens to people who are accustomed to being in a wheelchair, but I'll go into a room, get something, balance it all the way back to where I'm going (like to watch TV or even to bed), and then (crap!) I forgot something else I needed, and I have to get myself back into the wheelchair, wheel myself back into whatever room it was in, get whatever it was, balance it all the way back to wherever I'm going, and do my settling it all over again. So exhausting.
I can't get my wheelchair into my bathroom... or into the bathrooms at friends' houses. The doors in normal houses are sometimes smaller for the bathrooms and closets than for regular room doors.
Rugs are the bane of my existence. I had to have friends take the floor rug out of my living room because my wheels caught on the edge of it and bunched it up. I'd have to get a "running start" to clear it. Carpeted areas (especially thick carpets) slow me down, and it's harder to push myself. Sometimes I spin out when I'm trying to turn.
That said, hardwood floors are also the bane of my existence. If they're too dusty, I have trouble stopping myself.
These babies turn on a dime though. It's sort of fun to spin around and I'm pretty damn maneuverable now. No one seems to appreciate that. Morons.
It's embarrassing when productions are made. When my friend is folding my wheelchair up and putting it in the car, and she's having trouble, and there's all this clanging and the front wheels fall off... and people are walking by, staring...

Elias Graves
01-26-2011, 09:30 PM
Those are all very common observations and experiences you are having. The staring over your head and talking to your companion business is perhaps the most irritating.