Disability Etiquette 101: To Help or Not To Help

I have been using a wheelchair full time for more than 16 years since I sustained a spinal cord injury. It’s not unusual for people to give me an extra look as I pass by them, when they see me approaching a door, when they see me getting in to my car, or generally doing something a little differently than they do it. While I know that many things are likely going through their minds, I also know they find themselves thinking: should I help?

It’s a natural tendency for people to look when I am doing something, and I never mind someone asking me if I need help. What’s important is when I say no, then please accept that I really mean no. People often want to be nice, so when I am approaching a door and someone opens it, I am happy and say thanks. If I can get it myself and they haven’t started opening it, I proceed to open it on my own. It’s the same when I get in or out of my car and people ask if I need help. “Thanks for asking, but I am good,” is my usual response, and that is because I have a system and do it every day.

So what are some good things to say or ask when you encounter someone with a disability who you think may need some assistance? First, remember there is no standard set of rules because every one of us is different. What may be okay to me might rub someone else the wrong way, so above all, be sure to be respectful. That being said, here are some good tips if you inclined to offer assistance to someone living with a disability:

  • The safest and best thing to do when you are inclined to help is ask if the person needs it. Many do and are delighted that you asked. Even those of us who don’t need help will appreciate the gesture.
  • If you are heading into a store or a mall and someone with a wheelchair, walker, or cane is behind you, holding the door is ALWAYS appreciated.
  • If you are in a store and see someone in a wheelchair looking up at a high shelf, offering assistance is great. There aren’t too many things I need help with, but this is definitely one of them. But again, remember – if the person says no, then they mean no.
  • A question I often get asked is whether or not it’s appropriate to ask someone using a wheelchair what happened to them. This is where people react differently. If you are engaged in a conversation and want to take it a step further to learn what happened to cause their injury, you could ask them, “Do you mind if I asked what happened to you?” Those who know me know that I do not mind talking about it, but others do not like to talk about it. If you ask, people can choose to talk about it or not. If they say no, please do respect their answer and move on.
  • DO NOT push someone’s wheelchair without asking. EVER. I do not have handles on the back of my wheelchair for one reason: I do not want someone pushing me! I worked hard in rehab and continue to work hard to be able to be as independent as possible. If I need help, I will ask for it. Not only is pushing someone’s wheelchair without asking completely inappropriate, but it’s also dangerous. It could throw off their balance and end up to be more harm than good.

As always, I hope that you find my writing helpful. I’ll end by saying what I did in the beginning: the best rule to live by is if you are not sure, ask – and then accept the answer!

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  • Andy Klee

    Also, don’t pet anyone’s guide dog or assistance animal without permission. I know one person who’s dog wears a sign that says “don’t pet me, I’m working.”