Holding the Door for Wheelchair Users: Why One Person’s Nice is Another’s Annoyance

It happens all the time. A wheelchair user approaches a door and able-bodied people in the vicinity rush to open it. Sometimes they wait an excessively long time while you approach the door, sometimes they are walking the other direction and hurry back to open the door, sometimes they follow you as you approach the door and run ahead to get it, and every once in a while they will pass through the door and simply hand it to you as you pass through behind them, but usually this only occurs if they didn’t notice that you use a wheelchair.

On the other hand, nobody likes having a door thoughtlessly slammed in their face. Holding a door can be sign of courtesy and politeness. In a respectful society, people make the effort to “help each other out”. Shouldn’t we be grateful when someone displays an “act of kindness”? The answer to this question is that “there is no correct answer”. If you feel that every time someone opens a door for you or for anyone else, that they are being nice, or you find opening a door to be difficult or challenging, then it is natural to feel gratitude. Your gratitude comes from your interpretation and the specifics of the situation.

But, let’s look at the case for “annoyance”. In the past twenty-eight years that I have been a wheelchair user, it is very rare for me to have encounters with strangers where they have overestimated my abilities. For the most part, people consistently underestimate me in regard to what I can and cannot physically accomplish, my economic status, my health, my ability to raise a family, and my general quality of life.

This happens because while most people are fairly good at sizing up other people “like them”, most able-bodied people fail miserably at this when encountering a person with a disability. They resort to a mental process called “cataloging”. This is a process where individuals with a particular characteristic are lumped into a single Group description. It is assumed that each person in the Group has all the same characteristics of all the others in the Group. When cataloging is based on negative societal bias it becomes stereotyping and labeling.

The problem with stereotyping is that the Sterotyper no longer feels to the need to evaluate an individual or situation on a case by case basis, he or she simply applies the stereotype. The basic stereotype for wheelchair users is that they constantly need help. While need the need for continual help is true for a subset of wheelchair users, and is true for all wheelchair users some of the time, it doesn’t apply to ALL wheelchair users ALL of the time.

Why not be safe and “assume” that a person needs and desires help in every instance? Because, it is this very assumption that is a product of stereotyping that extends not only to “opening doors”, but limits every person with a disability in regard to employment, recreational , and social opportunities.

If a person is genuinely trying to be “nice” to another person, then that person needs to make the effort to determine how the “act” is to be received. For example, it may be “nice” to give money to the poor. But approaching and handing out $5 dollar bills to people on the street that you perceive to be unemployed and poor most likely will have a more detrimental effect on the feelings of self-worth of the Giftee than the receipt of monetary gain.

The fact is that when people go out of their way to provide unrequested assistance, they are also sending a strong message. That message is that “I can do this easier and/or better than you.” It also comes with the baggage of “You should be grateful for my act of kindness.” When done intentionally this behavior is a power play for social status gain, when done unconsciously it is a product of stereotyping.

As for me personally, do I find it annoying when someone holds the door for me? That depends. It depends on the circumstances of who is holding the door, why I think he or she is holding the door, and whether or not holding the door is actually helpful, or is product of stereotyping. In most cases, I find it annoying.

The Railing Side Wheel Control Method

I was introduced to this method twenty four years ago as a brand new T(4-5) paraplegic. At the time, I was rolling around in the rehabiliatation hospital on a gurney, not yet ready for a wheelchair. The man who demonstrated it to me either came up with the method himself, or he learned from someone else. Regardless, as the number one promoter of this method, I have named it "Railing Side Wheel Control".

The only requirements are one sturdy railing and a light weight wheelchair.

Instruction of the RSWC Method

This video goes shows the instruction of the RSWC method to a new paraplegic at a rehabilitation hospital in Boston.

The difference in body positioning between myself and the patient partially explains why I am able to generate more power for ascending each step.

Railing Side Wheel Control Spreads to China

The "Gorilla" Method

This method is demonstrated by "Ebay". This method requires a sturdy railing, a seat belt, and wheel cams. The wheel cams allow the wheels to roll backwards, but not forward on each step. The seat belt keeps his wheelchair from separating away from his body as he goes up the step.

NOTE: These particular steps have a short rise and have a long run.

The "Monkey" Method for Going Down and Back Up

Here we have "Ebay" demonstrating his stairway accessibility device at his home. A key feature of this method is the seat belt and the wheel cams that permit the wheelchair to stop on each step. The ability to stop on each step allows for resting.

The "Off the Road" Method

This method obviously works, but requires lots of lower body control and two railings.

Another "Off Road" Method

This method appears to require a good deal of effort. It also seems to need stairs with a relatively low rise over run.

The "Two Crutch" Method

Jeff Adams demonstrates this method as he ascends the steps backward to the Acropolis in Greece. This method requires a specially built wheelchair that appears have the following features:

1. Small rear wheels with cam locks that permit backwards, but not forward rolling.
2. A short wheel base for stopping on long steps.
3. A seat belt.

Two crutches and control of trunk muscles are also needed.


The "One Crutch" Method

Once again, Jeff Adams demonstrates his method as he ascends the 1776 steps of the CN Tower in Canada. The wheelchair chair appears to be the same or similair to the one used in the previous video. The only obvious difference in this method is the use of one crutch and the railing.

The "Two Chairs and One Pole" Method

I used this method for over ten years to get to the upstairs of my former home. The pole in the video is used at a two story commercial building.

Two wheelchairs are required.


The IBOT 4000 costs $26,100
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Going Down "Backwards" Style

This method is the most popular method for going downstairs. It requires one sturdy railing.

Railing Side Wheel Control Method for Escalators

Using the RSWC method for escalators requires mostly good balance. Not much strength is required, only enough for a good grip on the railing.

Two Railing Method for Ascending Escalators

The most commonly used method for going up escalators.

Backward Two Railing Method for Escalators

The cousin to the backward method for descending stairs.

"Free Wheeling" Down Stairs

The key here is good wheelie balance. The other important item is finding stairs with a low rise and a long enough run to allow you to slow down after each step. If you pick up speed with each step, it is very difficult to do more than a few steps.

Four Cross Down the Stairs

Fast and fun, but you need an off road wheelchair.

The Danger of Going Down Backwards

Going down is easy as long as you do not lose your grip.

Failed "Free Wheeling"

It is not uncommon to crash at the bottom of the stairs with this method.