#12: When should I hold the door for someone using a wheelchair?

Side view of a door showing both door handles and the latch

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I’m a woman with no disabilities living in a mid-sized city. Today while I was leaving the library, a woman using a wheelchair was entering. Someone else had pressed the automatic door opener several seconds ago, but the door was starting to close as she was going through. I held the door open briefly, as it was about to hit her chair. She yelled at me for holding the door, telling me that I thought that she was incompetent or stupid. I apologized and went on with my day.

I understand that folks with disabilities have many experiences of people treating them as less competent than abled people, and I do not want to contribute to that pattern if I can avoid it. For future reference, would it have been more polite to hold the door open, or to let it close on her? (If it helps, I do hold the door open for people with no apparent disabilities, particularly if they’re maneuvering something large like a stroller).

—To Hold or Not to Hold

Ah, door-holding, the ultimate advice column question! Door-holding hits all the classic advice column question points:

  • It can be motivated by both paternalism and politeness
  • It is a brief one-off interaction between strangers
  • It happens several times a day for many people
  • It involves real problems of accessibility and a small risk of actual physical harm
  • There’s no universally accepted rule for what to do
  • Every door-traversal carries a risk of being perceived as rude when you’re trying to be polite

Door-holding is a brief interaction between strangers in which you need to quickly size up the situation and guess at the right action. The problem, as you point out, is when you make your decision based on your internalized bias rather than based on the specific situation. This particular version involves a person without mobility disabilities and a person using a wheelchair, but it also plays out for men holding the door for women, younger adults holding the door for older people, people without burdens holding the door for people with burdens, and many other situations.

On a personal note, I thought door-holding was an unnecessary and meaningless ceremony until I visited a country with much older buildings and struggled to open several heavy old doors. Many doors used to be so heavy that a meaningful percentage of people could not open them by themselves!

General theory of door-holding

Here are my standards for ordinary, middle-of-the-road, polite but not patronizing door-holding in general: If you are already going through the door, and holding the door would help the other person more than it would inconvenience you, and you aren’t making assumptions about someone’s ability to open doors that aren’t warranted, and you do not expect any particular behavior in return, go ahead and hold that door. (Occasionally, I underestimate how long it will take for the person behind me to get to the door, at which point I apologize for making them hurry and make fun of myself for getting it wrong.)

Wheelchair user-specific theory of door-holding

Some aspects of door-holding etiquette are specific to wheelchair users. While I agree with this advice to “open doors and hold them open as you would for anyone,” non-wheelchair users often don’t realize that they are holding doors differently for wheelchair users. This delightful short video from the Shepherd Center demonstrates some of the ways non-wheelchair users get in the way of wheelchair users when they open doors for them differently. The first scenario shows how to respond when a wheelchair user holds the door for a walking person: the walking person should go through the door, fully past the wheelchair user, and optionally reach back from behind the wheelchair user to hold the door in return (not using the “dreaded arm bridge” in which they lean over the wheelchair user—watch the video to see what this is).

A minor technical tip: sometimes it’s best to punch that automatic door opening button again instead of holding the door with your hand. The benefit is that you are definitely out of the way and not blocking the door with your body, it’s less work for you and therefore less of an imposition on the other person, it can be plausibly interpreted as you wanting the automatic door for yourself, and the other person can better predict how long the door will stay open.

It sounds like you were already walking through the door, in a different direction, and went out of your way to briefly hold the opposite door so it wouldn’t hit this person’s wheelchair. It’s hard to apply the standard of “Hold doors as you would for anyone” since this situation requires the risk of the door hitting them as it closes—something less likely to happen to a person walking without assistive devices. Were you in the “arm bridge” position—leaning over them to reach the door and invading their personal space? Were you blocking the way or crowding them? Did you jump or move quickly to be able to hold the door? In those situations, most wheelchair users would prefer that you didn’t hold the door, preferring a small bump to their wheelchair to having their space invaded, or risking running over someone’s toe, or having unnecessary attention drawn to them.

Perhaps you did absolutely nothing wrong and held the door according to all the best advice of the majority of wheelchair users. It’s still possible that the person you held the door for will be mad at you. Some wheelchair users in this situation will want you to hold the door (properly), some will want you not to hold the door, some will change their minds depending on the circumstances, and no one wears a sign saying which thing they prefer that day. For example, a wheelchair user with fibromyalgia might be extremely pleased to avoid a jarring impact that would exacerbate their pain. Another wheelchair user might engage in wheelchair sports and enjoys practicing dealing with objects slamming into their wheelchair (wheelchairs are generally pretty sturdy). Another wheelchair user might be especially frustrated by ableism or something else that day, and having a door held unnecessarily for them might be the last straw for their temper. You can try to guess which one of these categories a person is in by looking at their body language and their mobility device, but you’re not always going to guess correctly. And that’s okay! Making mistakes is an ordinary part of life.

Concrete arches spanning a waterway
CC BY-SA Mike Beaumont https://flic.kr/p/26EKJ22

How to be a better ally to wheelchair users

It makes sense to review wheelchair door-holding etiquette, but I’d like to put door-holding in a larger context of being a better ally to wheelchair users. What I hear wheelchair users complaining about when it comes to building access is:

  • People making a big fuss over holding the door for them
  • People standing in the way while holding the door for them
  • People invading their space while holding the door for them
  • People assuming wheelchair users aren’t able to open doors themselves
  • People touching wheelchair users without permission while holding doors
  • People grabbing or pushing their wheelchair without permission
  • People commenting on wheelchair users’ bodies or assistive devices
  • People blocking the wheelchair ramps with scooters or bikes or cars
  • Narrow paths, crowded elevators, or badge readers too far from the door
  • Non-functional automatic door buttons or platform lifts
  • Buildings where only some entrances are wheelchair accessible
  • No signs to accessible entrances posted at inaccessible entrances
  • Insufficient accessible parking spaces
  • Non-accessible buildings and public spaces

In addition to (properly) holding open doors for wheelchair users, you can also move e-scooters out of the wheelchair ramp area, ask for more bicycle racks next to the ramps, ask maintenance to install or fix broken automatic door openers, or donate to organizations that advocate for better accessibility laws. For example, as a conference organizer who hasn’t been a wheelchair user (yet), I learned that I had to test all the platform lifts providing wheelchair access around stairs in the venue, since the lifts are often broken, filled with stuff, or only operable with a key which most staff don’t know how to find. (It’s better to find a step-free venue that doesn’t require wheelchair users to use slow platform lifts to get between parts of the venue.)

Ally skill: Accept that mistakes are part of acting as an ally

When acting as an ally, the goal isn’t to make as few mistakes as possible; the goal is to do the most good that you are capable of achieving while taking care of yourself. The best way to not make mistakes is to do as little as possible and only act when you are 100% certain you are correct—which isn’t a very effective way of changing the world! It’s better to take action more often as long as you are doing more good than harm. In the Ally Skills Workshop, I advise people to “Apologize, correct yourself, and move on” when they make mistakes, and continually try to grow and improve their ally skills. If you are trying your best, listening when marginalized people speak, and continuing to grow, mistakes are part of the normal learning process. (Of course, if you know that you tend to be too cavalier and often harm people through carelessness or lack of forethought, you are probably already comfortable making mistakes and need to work more on other skills first.)

Featured image CC BY Conal Gallagher https://flic.kr/p/nbxZcB


One thought on “#12: When should I hold the door for someone using a wheelchair?

  1. The only circumstance in which you should open the door for a wheelchair user is the exact same circumstance as you would for someone not in a wheelchair: if the person (wheelchair or not), happens to be right behind you. Most people reach back with one arm and briefly hold the door open for a person who is right behind them. Please do not go out of your way to open the door. If a person walks towards a door that you are not also passing through, you do not rush over and grab the door so don’t do this just because the person approaching the door happens to be in a wheelchair. Treat them exactly the same way as if they were walking through the door. As well, it is not necessary to grab the door to stop it from bashing the person’s chair because this is not even a problem and does not prevent a wheelchair user from passing through the door. If a wheelchair user is out in public by themselves, it is because they are capable of dealing with doors and everything else, therefore, your intervention is not needed or wanted. If a wheelchair user is not capable of dealing with doors or other things, they will have a companion with them so your intervention is not needed either. If a wheelchair user encounters a door that is too difficult to open they are capable of asking a nearby person for assistance.


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