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

*** In response to some comments. I am adding this preface. This Note is NOT just about only about Holding Doors. It is about the bigger picture of the low expectations of competence assigned to people with disabilities. It is about getting people to think about the societal concept of Benevolent Ableism, stereotyping, and making assumptions without taking the time to make real-time assessments and evaluations. In other words, it’s not about whether you hold open doors or not, it’s not about whether you like having them held or not. It’s not about YOU. It’s a comment on how society views people with disabilities.” ***
 
Trigger Warning: It you are offended that some people may view events differently than you, don’t read this article.
 
It happens all the time. A wheelchair user approaches a door and some able-bodied people in the vicinity rush to open it. Sometimes, they wait an awkwardly long time while he or she approaches the door from a distance. Sometimes, they are walking the other direction and hurry back to open the door. Sometimes, they follow the wheelchair user as he or she approaches the door and run ahead to get it. And every once in a while, they will pass through the door and seamlessly hand it off behind them, but usually this only occurs if they didn’t notice that the person behind them was using 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 instance when 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 of the specifics of the situation.

But, let’s look at the case for annoyance. In the past thirty-five years that I have been a wheelchair user, it is very rare for me to have encounters with strangers where they have overestimated my capability. For the most part, people consistently underestimate myself and other people with disabilities in regard to what we can and cannot accomplish, our economic status, health, ability to raise a family, recreational activities, and general quality of life.

This low evaluation happens because while most people are fairly good at sizing up other people “like themselves”, most able-bodied people fail miserably at this when encountering a person with a disability. They resort to a mental process called “chunking”. This is a process where multiple varied 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 chunking is based on societal bias, it becomes stereotyping and labeling.

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

Why not be safe and assume that a wheelchair users needs and desires help in every instance? Because, this very assumption of lack of capability is the product of stereotyping (benevolent ableism) that extends not only to opening doors. It limits every person with a disability in regard to employment, recreational, and social outlets. The assumption of lack of capability in specific instances (door opening) is evidence of the societal assumption of a general lack of competence (in most areas) which then translates to less societal opportunities in life.

In other words, if wheelchair users were considered to be equals in society, and if the default assumption was one of competence and capability, then holding a door open would not come with the previously described negative connotations. But in today’s society, that is not the case.

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. Is the act wanted and appreciated? And what if it isn’t? For example, it may be “nice” to give money to the poor. But approaching and handing out $1 dollar bills to people on the street that you perceive to be poor, most likely, will have a larger detrimental effect on their feelings of self-worth than their minor monetary gain.
 
When people go out of their way to provide unsolicited assistance, they are also sending a message. The message is that “I can do this easier and/or better than you.” Many times, it also comes with the baggage of “You should be grateful for my act of kindness.” When done intentionally this behavior can be a power play for social status gain, when done unconsciously, it can be a product of the assumptions and stereotyping of benevolent ableism.
As for me personally, do I find it annoying when someone holds the door for me? It depends on the specifics of the situation. What manner is the door being held- are they standing in the threshold in the way, or are they passing the door along to me? How long has he or she been waiting for me to arrive – an awkwardly long time or just moments? Importantly, whether or not holding the door is actually helpful or hindering to me based on the previous. It sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. We all do it (mostly unconsciously) in a flash, all the time, disability or no disability. It’s just that everyone has his or her own personal set of criteria to go by.
 
Photo Credit: Cracked.com

My Comment on Some Comments

It appears that my article on holding doors for wheelchair users has created ire among some people who feel that their acts of kindness (or other people’s acts of kindness) have now been misinterpreted.
 
Note that I specifically said “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 instance when 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 of the specifics of the situation.”
 
The above paragraph summarizes the case for “kindness.” But it appears that some people whose only interpretation of door interactions as “acts of kindness” are offended that other people might have a different interpretation of door interactions. They are bothered that someone else may not appreciate their act of kindness as they intended it.
 
One of my points is that there are no blanket truths to human interactions. True kindness also means taking a moment to assess individual situations and the feelings of other people as best you can in the moment. That involves constantly evaluating the consequences of your actions in how they have affected other people in the past and may in the future, both positive and negative.
 
If you think that any questioning of your acts of kindness are offensive or wrong, or if making an on the spot assessment is too much trouble, then are you really as kind as you think you are?

Reference Link: Hostile, Benevolent, and Ambivalent Ableism: Contemporary Manifestations

Appendix 1: Study Review – When door holding harms: gender and the consequences of non-normative help

According to this study by Megan K, McCarty and Janice R. Kelly, abled-bodied men (but not women) have their self-esteem lowered when other men hold doors open for them in a chivalrous fashion. Here is my interpretation of why this happens.
 
There is no societal expectation for people to hold open doors for strong and capable men. But there is a societal expectation to hold open doors for people who are considered to be less physically capable such as women, the elderly, children, and people with disabilities. Therefore, if a man notices that other men are holding open doors for him, his internal explanation is likely to be that other men have sized him up and feel that he fits into the less capable category.
 
This is the very same calculus that I have mentioned in terms of wheelchair users. Most people don’t like it when other people assume that they are less capable than they really are. It makes them feel worse about themselves. People want to be admired for their qualities, not looked down upon.
The reason that women in the study were not affected by male door opening is that society expects men to open doors for them (women). Therefore, they see a man holding a door for them as the general consequence of being a woman as opposed to a judgement on their individual capability.
 
That being said, it is my guess that if a woman feels that other people are going out of their way to hold open doors for her and not other women, she will have the same lowering of self-esteem. She will wonder what it is about her that makes other people feel the need to hold the door for her.
Men, women, and people with disabilities are similarly negatively affected when situations create questions about their underlying level of competency.
 

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