How to Help Someone With a Disability

Updated on June 14, 2017
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I am a wheelchair user. These are some practical tips for how to offer help to someone with a disability without feeling uncomfortable.

Woman helping someone in wheelchair
Woman helping someone in wheelchair | Source

Offering to help others is a fundamental part of the human experience. When we see someone fall down and get hurt, our instinct is to offer to help them up and ask if they are okay. If we recognize a family member going through a difficult experience, we reach out to support them. When faced with a big project at work, many of us ask what we can do to help reach the company goals.

When it comes to offering help or providing assistance to someone with a disability, many people are unsure or cautious about helping—perhaps because they are afraid of offending, or they don't know the best way to help.

Below I've gathered some practical tips about how recognize when someone with a disability may need help, how you can offer assistance, what you can expect if someone takes you up on your offer, and how to handle rejection.

SOS life preserver
SOS life preserver | Source

Recognize that for many people it can be difficult to ask for help

For many of us with disabilities, asking for help can be challenging. Most of us value our pride and are capable of achieving most daily tasks on our own. When the occasion does arise in which we could use a helping hand, the skill of actually asking for assistance is one that many people are often still in the process of developing.

So when someone actually recognizes a situation in which they could lend a helping hand, it can often leave those needing help feeling relieved and validated.

Don’t be afraid to engage

When you offer help to a stranger on the street, you probably do not worry about feeling like you are patronizing them – most likely you are responding to the call to be a good human being and help out your fellow neighbor.

Try to approach situations with people with the disabilities the same way you would if the person was able-bodied. There is no need to feel that you are being patronizing if you recognize a legitimate situation in which someone could use a leg up.

Likewise, if it looks like someone with a disability is in a legitimate predicament (i.e., a wheelchair user stuck in the snow, someone with a cane struggling to open a public building door, or a person with dwarfism struggling to reach for an item on the top shelf of the grocery store) do not hesitate to approach them.

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Ask first

It can be tempting to rush over to someone’s rescue if you see them struggling or in a compromising situation, however it is important to keep in mind that if the person you are rushing to aide has a visible disability that you ask if they need or would like assistance before helping.

Some people with disabilities may have conditions that could turn your good Samaritan act of help into a more dangerous situation. For example, the person with a disability could have an injury or sensitive area of the body, may only be able to move certain ways, or need to explain how to use their mobility equipment. It’s important to give the person with the disability a heads-up and chance to accept your offer so you know how best to help them.

Some phrases you can use when offering help to someone with a disability:

Ask If Someone Needs Help

- A person on crutches struggling to load groceries into their car: “Would you like a hand with those bags? I don’t mind tossing them into your car.”

- Someone with a hearing impairment being left out of conversations in a large crowd: "Hi, a few of my friends and I are chatting over here, would you like to join us?”

- Someone in a wheelchair struggling to push up a steep ramp: “Hi there, can I give you a hand pushing up that ramp?”

Woman pushing wheelchair
Woman pushing wheelchair | Source

What to expect if someone takes you up on your offer

If someone takes you up on your offer to help, ask how you can best help them.

It can be tempting to take over and just complete a task yourself (i.e., grabbing all the grocery bags out of their hands and loading them into their vehicle) or rush into help someone physically (i.e., grabbing them by the arm to help them up from the sidewalk).

Allow the person you are offering assistance to to tell you specifically what they need help with or how you can help them.

Talk through your actions as possible to avoid surprising the person you are trying to help.

Some practical examples of talking through your actions when helping someone with a disability:

Talk Through Your Actions

- Helping a wheelchair user who took a spill: “I am going to set your wheelchair upright and then tell me the best way to help you up from the sidewalk.”

- Helping someone struggling to reach high objects: “I will reach the items you need from the utility closet and bring them to your desk.”

- Helping someone with a vision impairment navigate an intersection: “I am standing to your right, and I will guide your hand to my elbow. Then we can walk together past the intersection.”

Street stop sign
Street stop sign | Source

How to handle a rejected offer

Don’t take a rejected offer for help personally. Many people with disabilities know when to ask for help and when they can do things on their own and most of them are quite comfortable letting someone know when they could use an extra hand.

Also avoid making assumptions. Keep in mind that what you may view as someone who is struggling may actually just need a little more time to complete a task or may be how they always complete a task or handle a situation and for them it is their norm and not something that they require help with.

Most importantly, don’t let a rejection of your offer discourage you from offering assistance in the future. There is no harm in offering. If someone says “no thanks, I got this” – it does not necessarily mean they do not want you to help them, it more than likely simply means they are comfortable helping themselves.

Maintain respect for equipment and service animals

It is important to keep in mind that a person’s mobility equipment, walking cane, hearing aid, or service animal is an extension of themselves. You probably wouldn’t reach out and touch someone’s face or sensitive area without asking permission first, so apply the same rule to equipment or service animals.

For tips on how to offer help to people who are visually impaired, check out the video below.

How to Offer Help to a Blind Person

A good rule of thumb is to approach situations involving people with disabilities as you would someone who is able-bodied that you might offer a helping hand to. Sincerity mixed with a servant’s heart and appreciation for everyone’s independence will allow you to easily navigate any situation in which an offer of assistance may be needed.

What other tips or real-life experiences have you had when offering a helping hand to someone who is differently abled? Share in the comments!

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