7 Awkward Customer Service Experiences Every Wheelchair User Has Encountered

Just another day at the mall...

'When's the last time you took a clothing line to the face? Pippa Stacey talks shopping in a wheelchair, and the awkward moments that follow.'

My name is Pippa, I’m 23 years old and I became ill with a long-term neurological condition at the age of 15. Among other things, my condition affects my mobility, and two years ago I became a wheelchair user.

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Like most people my age, I enjoy a bit of retail therapy. However, it seems to me like the harder you try to blend in and have a quiet, uneventful, Normal Person Outing Into The Real World, the more likely you are to run into some really awkward situations…

1. Trying to access inaccessible shops

The first challenge lies in getting yourself physically into your shop of choice. Whilst I always aim for an inconspicuous entrance, both steps and ridiculously narrow entrances to squeeze through mean this doesn’t often happen. Us wheelchair users and our faithful pushers have three go-to methods: tip upwards, hoist backwards, or, my favourite, the “I’m just going to take a run at it and hope for the best” manoeuvre.

By the time I’ve safely made it inside, I’m surprised it’s not closing time. As indeed are the hovering shop assistants, standing by with sheepish looks on their faces.

2. The predictably patronising welcome staff

Following this grand entrance, you may next encounter the Well Meaning Member Of Staff on welcome duty. Now, I believe all staff members mean well. They’ve done their disability training and they’re keen to put it into action: you see them gearing themselves up to make the necessary eye contact and show that they’re a Top Class Friend Of The Disabled People.

However, stooping down to my 23-year-old graduate self and asking in a cooing voice if I was “being trouble today, eh? Eh?” is not my cup of tea. If you don’t stop with the patronising baby talk then quite frankly Linda, yes. I will be trouble.

3. Manoeuvring through multiple rails of clothing

After a healthy dose of accessibility issues and derogatory talk, we’re finally free to browse the shop. Our next challenge? Safely navigating through display stands, rails of clothing, and various other obstacles.

I like to imagine that the store manager has set up this inaccessible maze as a test of my endurance, and I wholeheartedly accept the challenge. I WILL get myself through these inexplicably tiny spaces and around these sharp corners, even if I do have to take a row of the new Autumn/Winter party dress range (or twenty) to the face.

4.Emergency stops when staff members materialise out of nowhere

To add an extra element of challenge, let us throw in the rogue rushed-off-their-feet staff members. These are the ghosts to my Pacman game: they appear out of nowhere and the last thing you want is a collision.

However, I like to think that the multiple emergency stops necessitated by this are simply good practice at testing one’s reflexes. Not really THAT useful though when your carer is occupied with looking at something else entirely and my own reflex is to grip the sides of the wheelchair and make a muted ‘noooooooo’ sound, as if this alone is going to stop me moving forwards. You never know, right?

5.Taking people by surprise by standing up

Having stayed in one place long enough to find something I like, we face our next fiasco: inadvertently challenging the stigma that STILL exists about wheelchair users by demonstrating that *gasp* some of them can walk.

I try not to notice shop assistants’ surprise as I not only stick a foot out to try on a shoe, but proceed to stand up and wobble my way around to a mirror to take a look at them. “It’s a miracle!”, I want to declare, “These shoes have healed me! I SHALL go to the ball!!”

6.Taking a moment and causing concern for your wellbeing

After the excitement of the magical healing shoes has worn off, I may be feeling a little worse for wear. My chronic illness means that sitting up and moving about for short periods of time, even in the wheelchair, can leave me feeling really poorly, and I often ask to be left in a quiet corner for a couple of minutes until I can face moving again.

Now, I can imagine seeing this through the eyes of a shop assistant: a random disabled person deposited in a corner, looking like they’re about to pass out. Let’s be honest, it’s probably not the best advertisement for your brand, but what do you do in that situation?

I can almost feel them wondering if there are some hidden cameras recording their response for some sort of ‘How would YOU respond to the disabled person?’ social experiment. I do make an effort to try and smile or indicate that I’m okay, but… the awkwardness is real.

7. The checkout conversation paradigm

And finally, just before we attempt to exit the shop in a similarly graceful fashion to how we entered, we have the checkout counter. I say hello then wait patiently until the staff member, who automatically addresses my carer instead of me, realises that they aren’t going to speak for me and that I can, again *shock horror*, talk and pay for my items myself.

After another slightly tricky battle getting the card machine to reach down to my level, we’re finally done. We squeeze through the exit and take a deep breath, before entering the next shop and doing it all over again.

I’m all for retail therapy but my god, I may need regular therapy after some of the experiences I’ve had over the past few years.

I’d like to make clear, though, that for all the negative experiences of customer service I’ve had, there’ve also been many positive experiences too. This is obviously a light-hearted piece, but I hope it highlights what can be done to improve accessibility even further for us shopaholics on wheels.

'Have you had any awkward customer service experiences? I’d love to hear them! @lifeofpippa_'

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