Recently, I have been hearing a lot of talk about the importance of wheelchair users being able to “look people in the eye.” Whether it’s a standing wheelchair, a power wheelchair that elevates or an exoskeleton, the underlying message is basically the same: Your social interactions and status will improve if you are on the same eye level as a standing person.
Really? Just raise me up and people will respect me more? By no longer literally looking down on me, people will stop figuratively looking down on me? Is it that simple, or is there more to it? What we are actually talking about here refers to body language, social status and social conventions. And there is a lot more to these concepts then how high your eyes are relative to someone else’s.
When someone looks you in the eye, what does he or she see? Do they see someone who is confident regardless of his or her physical positioning? Or do they see someone desperately trying to be accepted as “normal.” Who are these people that you want to look in the eye?
My guess is that your family and friends aren’t affected by your eye level. For better or worse, how they feel about you and interact with you is unlikely to be swayed by whether you are up high or down low. They have a lot more data points to consider.
But encounters with strangers are different — first impressions matter. You want to make a “good” impression on a stranger, and you feel the need to be upright or elevated to do so. But let’s not forget, when it comes to first impressions, people take into consideration the entire package of what they see. Your eye height is only one consideration.
Not all eye contact is created equal. Twice a week or so, I use my long leg braces at the gym. I “walk” in a loop around the gym. OK, so it’s not walking. It’s an awkward two-legged swinging gait, but I am upright. I have been using my braces for many years at the same location. Therefore, I can compare my standing interactions with my seated interactions since all other factors remain the same.
Here is what I notice: People make even less eye contact with me standing in my braces than they do when I am using my wheelchair. When they do look at me, I can tell many of them are thinking “Dude, you are really messed up.” I am not experiencing the “fun and engaging” eye-to-eye social interactions that are supposed to happen. When I talk to people I already know while standing, I don’t notice any improvement in the conversation. Don’t get me wrong — I think any kind of standing/ambulation/walking that you can do is great for multiple health reasons. For many people, it’s also psychologically beneficial to be upright for periods of time. But the whole thing about needing to be on eye level with other people to engage with them on equal terms is an artificial construct.
If you want to be upright, great. Go for it! But if your desire to be upright is based on feeling socially excluded or disrespected for being seated, being at eye level will not solve this root problem. Your level of confidence, your ability to exude competence and warmth, your appearance and your skill at leading the conversation will have the greatest effect on how you are perceived. You can project all of these qualities from a seated position.
In my personal experience, there are two best moments in being upright. The first is the instant that I stand up to my full height. The second is the wave of relief I feel when I sit back down in my wheelchair.
Image credit: Photo by Author