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.


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shirlsw12 said...

I've never really thought about things this way. As somebody who doesn't use a wheelchair, I almost always think it's nice when somebody holds the door for me, unless they hold it for an abnormally long time. I hope I would think the same way if I were in a wheelchair, but there's no way to know for sure. I guess I'll have to think about whether I'm being nice or annoying next time I'm in this situation.

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