Supporting a Person with Disabilities: Ask; Ask How; Dialog; Listen.

Part One in a Series about the Hidden Life of Disabled People 

This article has five helpful hints on . . . how to be helpful. Humans are basically good. When they see someone with disabilities struggling, they want to lend a hand. But if they don’t know how or the best way to do so, they might do nothing. This can leave them frustrated or disappointed in themselves. That can be avoided.

Hint #1: Ask. When it seems a disabled person might need assistance, it is easy to think that saying “Can I open that door for you?” or even “Can I help?” might be intrusive, presumptuous, or condescending. Naw. Just ask. On the other hand, mine is the opinion of one person. Someone else who is disabled might feel differently. That brings me to my second helpful hint.

Hint #2: Ask for instructions. What works for your wheelchair-bound Uncle George may not work for someone else who rides a chair. Not all disabilities are the same. Even a specific diagnosis can manifest in a lot of entirely different ways. Here’s an example. (I’ll be the examples herein, since it is easy for me to write them.) Sometimes I have to be lifted, in my chair, over a step. If someone assumes that it is good to lift me the same way they do George, I may get injured. I break so easily that I have pulled a hip joint simply by speaking. Also, my wheelchair might be unlike George’s. Instead of assuming you know how to lift any chair, and starting in on the job, first ask “How do you want me to lift you?” Which brings me to Helpful Hint #3.

#3: Ask for instructions. (Okay, I’m repeating the last hint. But, even if you have no assumptions based on ol’ George, asking for instructions is a topic unto itself.) I’m often injured by well intended people. E.g.: Some very considerate guy sees my caretaker having a difficult time getting my wheelchair over a doorway’s threshold. He is kind to ask if he can assist, but then he pushes the chair hard, to get me over the bump. This jars my spine. I’m in pain for a week. Mind you, the jarring may not be huge; the accommodating man isn’t being rough per se. Before I learned better by becoming crippled myself, I would have pushed the exact same way. (Now I know to ask my caretaker to turn the chair ‘round and wheel me in backwards.) I’ve repeatedly been injured by nice folks who lack know-how. So, ask for instructions. In cases of navigating obstacles, ask the person in the wheelchair exactly how they want it done. This brings me to the next super-duper helpful hint.

#4: Ask the person with disabilities, not the caretaker. I am not a bag of groceries someone is transporting. I am capable of thought. Don’t look past me to the caretaker. I know my needs better than anyone else can. When I am out and about, my caretaker and I dialogue about how to manage what we are undertaking. Join in our dialog.

Yes, I keep asking you to ask. On the bright side, this means you don’t have to fear doing the wrong thing, or figure out what to do all on your own. You ask and voilá, instant competence!

Hint #5: Dialog. When you ask a question, wait for the answer. As the expression goes, “Silence is not consent.” Some people need a moment, or a lot longer, to prepare for speech. E.g.: I may have to shift position to speak safely. If speaking is hard for someone, it can require physical preparation that might be small—e.g. a minuscule shifting, a deep breath, or a moment of stillness in which to rest. These subtle preparations may not be recognized as such. Wait for speech.

And wait for the full answer. It can require enormous patience to listen to someone slow in speech, but let them finish. Why? Example: I can’t manage speech well when moving. So if someone’s assumption about how I was going to finish my sentence is wrong, and they grab my chair and start moving it, I am at their mercy, no matter how injuriously they are handling things.

My suggestions aren’t always easy to implement. Being of service to anyone who is “differently abled” can be challenging. But helping others gives one greater self-respect and personal fulfillment. It also puts you shoulder to shoulder with some wonderful generous and interesting folks. Or knee to shoulder.

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One Response to Supporting a Person with Disabilities: Ask; Ask How; Dialog; Listen.

  1. Ellen says:

    >”I am capable of thought. Don’t look past me to the caretaker” – FDG

    Hi Sweetie :)
    Meeting you in person 3 years ago has changed how I relate to people in wheelchairs I meet out in the public. Before I met you, I felt very awkward around disabled people. I have since shared some really beautiful spirit moments – brought about simply by making eye contact, smiling and saying “hello”.

    One night in the grocery store I saw an older man on a scooter. He was standing, one hand still holding the scooter for support, while struggling to reach an item on a higher shelf with the other hand. We had already passed each other in a different aisle and shared a smile. Anyway, I walked over and offered to reach the item for him. I got such an incredibly beautiful smile in return! His glow was so bright that I can still see it – and this was 2 years ago! He was totally amazed when he found out that I didn’t even work there, but that I just wanted to help :)

    Another way I like to help, like in the store where I work, is to walk through and make extra sure there is no clutter in the aisles when I see that someone in a chair might be shopping through…

    One more thing… A while back I had a bum knee and chose to ride a scooter through the grocery store with some friends who were on foot…Almost NONE of the people passing by would make eye contact with me! AND I TRIED!!! Once I noticed what was happening, I PURPOSELY tried to make eye contact and share a smile, but people actually LOOKED AWAY! Wow….

    Anyway, thanks for the education – and thanks for posting about it.

    Love, Love, Love, Ellen :)

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