The best way to help a wheelchair user…

…is not to – when they’ve asked you not to.

At the risk of seeming like a grumpy old bugger – I’m not, but I am in a huge amount of pain today, which inevitably affects my disposition – will the able-bodied please resist the urge to spring to the “aid” of wheelies (power or manual), who don’t ask for it? Or, at least, take heed when help is declined?

Doors are the main problem – people assume that anyone on wheels will be terminally balked by a door. Personally, in my powerchair, I can negotiate any door that comes my way, sometimes not easily, but it’s doable (my manual chair is  trickier, especially if the door opens towards me). If someone – as it might be, you, dear reader – insists on helping when I’ve declined your offer then, trust me, you’re not helping at all. You become a liability and as well as negotiating the doorway, I have to try not to mow you down in the process. In my manual chair that could take the shine off your shoes; in my powerchair it can mean a crushed foot or broken ankle – the better part of a quarter of a tonne of powerchair and rider packs quite a punch.

A few days ago, I’d been out to the bins (kept in an outbuilding), in my powerchair, and coming back, via an outwards-opening door, I was confronted by a little old lady who had decided to help me. This took the form of standing directly in front of me, holding the door (the only safe way to hold an outwards-opening door is to come outside and stand behind it, out of the way). I went through the usual routine – no thanks I’m fine etc, etc – to no avail. Eventually, I said look, if you stand there, you’re going to get hurt, and I can’t be responsible, at which point she tottered off muttering, aggrievedly,  about only trying to help. The best way to do that, though, is to heed what the person in the wheelchair says, especially if that’s No thanks.

So please, if your offer of help is politely declined, accept that as the end of the conversation – everybody will be happier. And if it’s accepted, pay attention to any advice about where best to stand to avoid becoming an obstruction or, worse, a casualty.

On one occasion, years ago now, in the Sainsbury’s store at Upton, Wirral, an overly officious staff member asked if I needed help packing my groceries. I said thanks, but no.

Well, she said, patting me on the knee, I’m going to help you anyway!

You do that, I said, quietly, and I’ll break your arm…  (I shop on wheels early in the morning, not my happiest time of day!)


You heard me. I said no, politely. If you’d prefer impolite, I’m happy with that too.

Wanders off muttering, and I get on with my interrupted packing.

When shopping on wheels in supermarkets, I put the stuff on the belt in the order I want to pack it, then make sure the checkout person delivers it in that order – you’d be surprised how many want to reach down the belt and grab something out of sequence for no apparent reason (it’s a simple system – heavy stuff first, light and/or fragile, last; not rocket science), and I can pack faster than my able-bodied, more randomly-inclined, fellows because of this.

And if, like me, as a manual wheelie you get somewhat knackered, the effort of supermarket shopping can be minimised by using the online store to put a shopping list together (Tesco provides an applet for that), and – this is the important bit – do so in the order you encounter it between the entrance and the checkout. Despite their reputation for moving stuff around, they mostly don’t, except around Christmas, though I once found vinegar in Tesco with the crisps, and on another occasions they had whole shelves empty except for signs saying it was for my convenience! Signs saying where stock had been moved to might have been more use.

But I digress, and the bottom line, boys and girls, is that we appreciate being asked if we need help, we really do, because one day we might (and some of us do every day – physical abilities vary widely). We appreciate it even more, if we decline the offer, and you accept our decision without taking it as a personal affront.

It’s really not difficult to comprehend – it’s about independence. And choice.

An exception: people on mobility scooters almost always need help to negotiate doors.


11 thoughts on “The best way to help a wheelchair user…

  1. I’ve got some for my son, we like the humour. As someone who has to push a wheelchair for said son – do you have any tips, (we do have a joint technique for doors). Worse thing is trying to have a conversation while pushing.

    • The only problem I’ve had pushing someone in a wheelchair while talking is running out of puff! I had thought that a bikers’ intercom might solve your problem, but no. The ear pieces fit into the helmet, not your ears, and the system is powered by the bike’s battery, so the whole thing is useless. And expensive.

      Perhaps some of the geniuses who design pointless and expensive crap for wheelchair users (a 30 quid cupholder – who do they think they’re kidding?), could turn their attention to a self-contained intercom system at – please note guys – a sane price!

  2. I agree, I have encountered the problem many times, the worst times being in hospital! I always had a knack for getting through the heavy fire doors on my way to the amputee gym, but you could bet your bottom dollar that staff, patients and visitors always made a mess of it by helping even if I had declined. I used to think it was great (and so much better) when I didn’t encounter anyone on the way 🙂
    I know people are trying to help, and it is one of the good things left in society that people will offer help, but I really do wish they would listen to me.

    • In the US, apparently, the gripe is that no-one offers help for fear of being sued if they get it wrong. A useful fear, and one we could do with here!

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