Reinterpreting Body Language

Illustration by Mark Weber

Don’t look now, but your body is talking about you.

As we readjust to life after illness or injury, it’s easy to lose sight of the conscious and unconscious signals we are all sending out from our chairs. How our bodies communicate and what they are revealing about us can seem like an afterthought, but there are important benefits to paying closer attention.

After my fall at age 22, the severity of my injury seemed to leave me no other option but to face the reality that, as a C4 complete quad, the silent partnership I had with my limbs was severed along with my spinal cord. Instead, a requirement to clearly verbalize my requests became the lifeline that insured my needs were met. To my surprise, once I was out of my hospital bed, I started to recognize the new nonverbal cues I could rely on to express my emotions and engage with those around me.

As a high quad without arm function, my altered body language introduced an additional pickle to my paralysis. Despite this, boundless curiosity and a slightly dusty social science degree have helped me recognize how my heavily-limited physical mobility alters my personal and professional interactions. In an effort to relate with others more effectively and lessen the likelihood that I am misunderstood, I have found ways to be mindful of my own unspoken behavior. Over time, my nonverbal communications have become a crucial element in making the kind of lasting impressions that lead to fruitful relationships.

Feeling Things Out

Emotions can be overwhelming after an injury, and finding ways to communicate what you are feeling when you don’t want to, or can’t, explain becomes a necessity. When I needed to be left alone, I let my facial expressions speak for me. I shook my head, shrugged my shoulders, avoided eye contact or simply shut my eyes when I wanted to detach. Conversely, when I paid attention and showed signs that I was listening and ready, I noticed that clinicians and therapists reacted positively and adjusted their treatment to match my level of enthusiasm. Relatedly, it was through knowing glances and empathetic smiles across the therapy gym and hospital hallways that I began to feel connection beyond the bubble of isolation I felt surrounding my wheelchair early on.

The initial weeks of being paralyzed leave most of us figuring out how to modify our gestures as we learn to modify the way we live. In rehab, Patty Schroeder, a C5-6 quad, had to find visible ways to express that she found something funny through facial expressions associated with amusement and slight nods in her neck brace. “It was difficult,” she said, “The loud laugh everyone knew me for had gone poof and was now totally nonexistent. It made me feel like I was reacting in a bizarre way.” Daniel Minx, a C4-5 incomplete quad noted changes in simple tasks, like pointing for something, “The fact that now I use a fist instead of the standard finger extension makes things less clear.”

“The loud laugh everyone knew me for had gone poof and was now totally nonexistent.” — Patty Schroeder

The loud laugh everyone knew me for had gone poof and was now totally nonexistent. — Patty Schroeder

As we get back out into the world, environmental factors — like crowded and noisy rooms — leave us even more dependent on adapted nonverbal cues. “When it’s loud, I have to poke people’s backs or butts to get their attention and get through,” says Schroeder. “Half the time they don’t hear or overreact by jumping out of the way or apologizing unnecessarily.”

As a disability trainer and community advisor for a large hospital, Ian Jaquiss often finds himself pushing through crowded events in a professional capacity. Jaquiss, a T10 incomplete para, goes “full gentleman” — making the choice to always stop and formally gesture for someone to pass. “I don’t love having to do it,” he admits, “but it curbs irking comments about running over toes and helps me appear and feel in control.”

To avoid frustration, I choose to stay put when I can. I find a spot with good potential for inclusive foot traffic and put on a friendly face, making welcoming eye contact to encourage others to approach me. Schroeder still likes to mingle but plans her path with consideration of her power chair’s wider berth. “In my chair, I have a radius of space that makes it harder to slip into conversations,” she says. “The abruptness of moving around limits spontaneous connection, so I have to plan more. Before, I could maybe bump into someone to start a conversation. If I bump into someone now, it will just hurt.”

Embracing Your Goals

There are a number of ways that body language can help you find success. It is wise to be respectful of the formality of a situation and display mannerisms that match the culture of a workplace or event. Experts tout posture as exponentially important in creating power dynamics and establishing dominance. You can roll into a room with your head held high, letting your body and presence lead your chair, or slumped down and self-conscious, letting your chair lead you. As a T7 para, it took a few years for Joe Pomeroy to recognize that when he shows up and “rolls-the-roll,” people notice. “I felt a bit more passive and more likely to move out of others’ way at first,” he says.  “When I got stronger and in better shape, it helped me get out and get things done with purpose. People often step out of my path now because they see that I am more focused on the task at hand than I am on them.”

Whether you are networking professionally or just meeting someone new in a social situation, handshakes will happen. Jaquiss has tried lots of approaches. “Back in high school, I purposefully strengthened my hands for a crushing shake,” says Jaquiss, who was 2 years old when he acquired his SCI. “Over the years, I’ve gotten over that. I go for a fist bump now.” For those of us with limited upper limb mobility, handshakes can seem like a hurdle. Schroeder, who has a doctorate in psychology and works as a private therapist, discloses her quadriplegia before meeting clients. At their initial appointment, she takes the lead by sticking out her hand first in order to get in front of any unnecessary discomfort or interruption in the rapport she needs to build with each client.

Offering a hand isn’t always an option for a higher quad. “If I can’t shake their hand, then already there’s a lot of judgment going on in their head,” says Minx. “That awkwardness can mess up the potential for some relationships to blossom because of confusion or embarrassment.”

To avoid this scenario, I try to meet my prospective shaker’s gaze right away and give them a friendly but firm nod in greeting. I avoid looking down toward their hand or my own to wordlessly suggest a nonphysical greeting is adequate. For those who stick their hand out anyway, I find it helpful to smile, lean in and use words to lessen the chance of an unintentional faux pas.

No One Deserves to be Here More Than You

Our nonverbal cues won’t always provide perfect solutions or look as suave as we might like, but they can be powerful tools when used thoughtfully. The connections I’ve made since I started being purposeful about my unspoken communications have proven to be more meaningful. It has been a nice reminder that my success isn’t determined by level of functioning or muscle mass, but instead has a lot to do with things I can control, like how I carry myself and the effort I put into relating to others. The icing on the cake is that the more I make the effort to reach out to others, both mentally and physically, the more they return the recognition and understanding I seek.

After paralysis, we are all just navigating our interactions to the best of our abilities, and there is no simple right answer. When I feel nervous about a social situation, I often remind myself that, as the title of a book by Miranda July says, “No one deserves to be here more than you.” This little self-compassionate reality check helps me reframe my perspective and shrug off unproductive insecurities about my physical circumstances. With reassurance that I most definitely do belong in the situation, I find my body can more comfortably play the role it has all along, as an aide to my experience and inextricable part of my ongoing dialogue with the world.

Less to Standing Than Meets the Eye

by Erik Kondo

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?

Erik Kondo says that you do not need to stand to exude confidence and authority. Here, he talks about the importance of body language to make a good first impression.

Erik Kondo says that you do not need to stand to exude confidence and authority. Here, he talks about the importance of body language to make a good first impression.

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.

For Pleasure …

Figuring out how to express your feelings and intentions through your body language after SCI can be key to finding love. Everyone I spoke with emphasized the importance of using nonverbal communication to show others you are comfortable with yourself. This not only puts others at ease, but also helps to draw attention away from unnecessary concern about your wheelchair or disability. First impressions are important, so going that extra mile to look self-assured and put your best “wheel” forward is critical.

Beyond the basics of choosing relaxed locations and activities for dates, Patty Schroeder makes conscious choices with food and beverages based on her physical ability. “I will purposefully stay away from foods that involve being cut with a knife or are hard for me to hold, like tacos or pasta, to not make a mess of first dates,” she says. Schroeder doesn’t want functional distractions or personal frustration to get in the way of a burgeoning connection. She adds, “I try to be easy-breezy and make things seem as simple as possible, to subconsciously highlight me and the conversation, not my struggling with food.”

Researchers have shown that we are subconsciously drawn to partners that exhibit physical behaviors associated with availability. Visible clues, like sitting up, opening your posture, uncrossing your arms, or positioning your chair angle in a way that comfortably faces the person you find interesting, casually suggest an openness to attention. Minx recommends something all of us can do, “Smile more, and flirt with your eyes.” Demonstrate you have interest in someone by making it clear they are your focus. Engage and genuinely react in conversations, laugh when appropriate andmaintain a comfortable level of eye contact — don’t look down, around the room or at your phone.

Once you know the attraction is mutual, it’s natural for new partners to express romantic feelings and connect physically. I know that for me, physical limitations and the introduction of my wheelchair can vastly change the landscape of what it looks like for someone to make a first move, give or receive a kiss or initiate a sexual encounter. Luckily, there are universally recognized ways to visibly drop hints that signal we are receptive to being touched without having to shout it from the rooftop.

When you want to get close, actively situate your chair beside that person. If you are feeling captivated by another, don’t be afraid of lingering eye contact and playful smiles to communicate you are on the same page. Given that rejection packs a punch, it’s smart to be mindful that body language is a two-way street. Be observant of the signals you receive to help assure your romantic overtures are welcome. Minx has his own tactic for doing this. “I look at a woman’s lips when I feel like kissing them,” he says. “How she visibly reacts says a lot. I want to know beforehand that she is going to meet me halfway if I lean in to kiss her.”

While our chairs are helpful in so many aspects of our lives, when it comes to romance, sometimes they are just in the way. I’ll let you in on a secret: Almost all of the first kisses I’ve had postinjury have happened outside of my chair. For me, eliminating the physical barrier of my wheelchair expedites intimacy by allowing another to get close, and then closer. On a couch or loveseat, if someone wants to playfully nudge my arm, I can lean my head in and rock my torso over to nudge them back. When my hand is not on an armrest, it’s easier for someone to interlock their fingers between mine or comfortably put their arm over my shoulder to snuggle.

Moving things to the bedroom opens up more options for physical expression. Schroeder found new freedom when she felt comfortable enough to invite a partner into her bed to get closer. “It was a huge step for me because one of the biggest things I miss is being able to full-on hug someone,” she says. “I’ve hated not being able to just wrap my arms around the people I care about and pull them in tight.” Getting on the same level was an important step in her relationship and a new way to bond through touch and a novel flexibility to adjust their positioning. “It was a big deal for both of us that he could sit behind me and put his arms around me without the chair being in the way,” she says.

After paralysis, when you are ready to explore things sexually, there is no need to be coy. When it comes to consent, safety needs and personal desires, it’s best to just clearly say things aloud. Everyone is unique, so only in time do we learn how to send and receive nonverbal cues about what is and isn’t working with a new partner in the bedroom.

** This post was originally published on

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