Jun 3, 2012

Helping people in wheelchairs

Larry from Rowland Heights, California asks:

Where I work, there is a guy in a wheelchair. Every time I help him open the door, he looks annoyed with me. What am I doing wrong/incorrectly?


This one is pretty simple. I am sure he is annoyed because you were helping him without asking.

People with disabilities do not want to be seen as "unable." Disability does not mean inability. For those with disabilities, there are certain things that they CAN do; when they can do something, they want to do it. By helping without asking, you are actually not allowing that person to do something that he can do on his own.

In addition, by helping him with something that he can do, you are also inadvertently highlighting his disability or drawing attention to it.

A lot of this is accidental most of the time. Many people are taught at a young age to help those who are considered "less fortunate," such as elderly people or those with disabilities. This is a type of "charity model" of thinking that people with disabilities are trying to do away with.

With that said, if the person is struggling, what do you do? Again, it is quite simple: ask the person if he needs assistance.

If the person says no, then respect his wishes. In fact, at physical rehabilitation centers, they teach their patients to be as independent as possible – this includes being able to do things on their own.

However, if he accepts your help, then open the door "correctly." The correct way is to open the door and stand behind it, instead of being in front of the door. The reason is because if you are in front of the door, you are blocking the doorway for the wheelchair (which can often be almost the same width as the door frame).

Asking if the person needs help is a general rule to keep in mind. For example, my friends had no idea what to do when they first went somewhere in public with me as a wheelchair user. I told them, "Don't help me unless I ask." That has worked beautifully so far and is a good general rule of thumb to follow.