Dec 2, 2011

Helping people in wheelchairs

JetPack from Winnipeg, Manitoba asks:

What are the rules about helping people in wheelchairs? When they need help, what do I do?


This is a very broad question, so I hope my answer isn't too broad as well.

Obviously, everyone is different. People use wheelchairs for different reasons. However, one thing that everyone wants is to be treated as normally as possible. Nobody wants to be treated like a freak.

Unfortunately that is hard to avoid if you are using a wheelchair. People treat you very differently. I could go on and on about it but to stay on topic, one very important form of "special treatment" we get (usually without asking for it) is help.

It is true that some wheelchair users do require help once in a while. But the blanket rule right now is this: If the wheelchair user needs your help, he/she will ask for it.

There is a tendency for people to help wheelchair users as much as possible, but many of us want to do things on our own first, or at least try. In fact, that is what rehabilitation centers are supposed to teach you – those places teach you to make the most of the parts of your body that are still functioning and do things yourself instead of relying on others for help.

This includes moments when it appears like the person is struggling to get something done or is doing something very slowly. Unless the person is looking around or asking for someone to help, don't step in.

I'll include an example: When I am getting back to my car, it is impossible for me to simply hop right in to the driver's seat and drive away. First, I have to lift my body from my wheelchair on to the driver's seat. Then I detached the wheels of my chair and stow them. After that, I fold down my chair's backrest and lift it on board and onto the passenger's seat. Finally, I can close the door and start the car.

As you can imagine, this can take a great deal of time (though I have mastered the art of doing it in under a minute). But there are countless times when passers-by would stop and ask if I need help because from THEIR perspective, it looks like I am struggling and taking forever. This does not mean that I am incapable of doing it – it just takes longer.

Of course, there are other ways of "helping" that may not always require asking for help. One such way is holding doors for someone. This is a normal courtesy regardless of whether you are able-bodied or not. However, many people tend to hold the door open for me completely – while standing in the door frame and in my way. That is obviously not the correct way to do it.

If you wish to hold the door open completely for a wheelchair user, make sure the doorway is clear. If the person seems to have good hand function, he/she might tell you that he/she's "got it." That is often an indication that your help is appreciated and no longer needed.

For double-doors, some manual wheelchair users may use one door as leverage while opening the other door. Hence, do not try to create a scenario where both doors are open because that may throw off the wheelchair user's center of gravity (remember: he/she is using the second door as leverage).

Of course, there is the occasional able-bodied person who thinks they are doing you a favor by pushing the automatic door button for you. I can never understand those people.

That is all I have to say about assistance with doors. The other big one is assistance with slopes.

It is no secret that slopes are wheelchair users' Achilles wheel. (I'll let you absorb that horrible pun for a second.) But similarly, wheelchair users will ask for help when they need it. Do not, under any circumstances, push the wheelchair user without asking. This is dangerous because if the chair is in motion, it may throw off its center of gravity and cause it to tip.

Some wheelchair users, such as myself, refuse to add push handles to their chairs for the precise reason of discouraging people from simply jumping in to push without asking. A wheelchair is considered part of our bodies and our personal space; pushing it without permission is a personal space violation.

But what happens if a wheelchair user does need to ask for help for slopes or a few steps?

The most important thing is to ask or listen to EXACTLY what the wheelchair user tells you to do. Don't make assumptions about what you need to do to help.

Every wheelchair is different; obviously, the person sitting in it will know it the best. For example, I know exactly how my wheelchair would behave on a slope or going up steps. I also know which parts are detachable or movable. Therefore, it is imperative that you listen to the instructions the person in the wheelchair gives you, for both parties' safety.


This is a long post. I will summarize it here for those who only skimmed through it:

- Don't help a wheelchair user unless he/she asks for help.
- If a wheelchair user appears to be struggling to do something or doing something slowly, don't assume he/she needs help.
- If assisting with doors (in a way that you'd assist any able-bodied person), make sure the doorway is clear for the wheelchair to enter.
- For double-doors and manual wheelchair users, don't try to assist by opening both doors. (One door is safer.)
- If asked to help, don't make assumptions on how to help – wait or ask for instructions and follow them.


  1. I have always taught that it's ok to ask "Do you need a hand?" or some such. The important point is to respect the answer.

    While most wheelchair users aren't shy about asking for help, there are many who don't want to disturb people, and as a result won't ask, even if they do need help.

    Just my 2 cents.

  2. Yes, it's certainly fine to ask and, more importantly and as you said, respect the answer; oddly, many people DON'T respect the answer!

    I had a discussion with a friend with cerebral palsy about asking for help and we made an interesting observation that people who were born with their impairments don't hesitate as much to ask for help, while those with acquired impairments (like me) are a bit more hesitant.

  3. For those who find themselves being asked to push a wheelchair user, here's a good blog entry with some safety tips: