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How You Can Help

By Jackie Conley

There are many ways in which you can help people with disabilities; however, be aware that there are also ways you can hinder rather than help them. Please read through these tips before you try helping someone with a disability.

Here are some general rules for helping all people with disabilities

  1. Always treat people with disabilities as equals.  All people want to have friends, fun, and experience life to the maximum.  People with disabilities are no exception.  Never be afraid, skeptical, or embarrassed to approach someone with a disability.  People with disabilities have just as much fun!
  2. Always ask before you help.  People with disabilities have varying levels of independence.  Never assume someone with a disability has a low-level.  If someone looks like they’re struggling, ask before you help.  A person may welcome help, or they may ask that you let her be independent; but even if she looks like she’s struggling, she may just want to become more independent, which requires practice in everyday situations.
  3. Never assume someone does or does not have a disability.  Everyone is different.  Sometimes, people with disabilities may act, feel, or think differently than you.  Don’t assume that for this reason someone has a disability, simply treat him/her as an individual because all people should be treated equally.
  4. Do not stare.  Sometimes it is an eye-opening experience to see someone with a disability in public.  However, people with disabilities have lives just like everyone else.  You are certainly allowed to look, but do not stare at a person with a disability.  Simply view them the way you view others.
  5. Respect and understand confidentiality.  People with disabilities have a right to privacy.  They are not obligated to tell you about their disability.  If someone does tell you about his/her disability, do not assume that he/she is comfortable with you telling other people about his/her disability.  Always ask permission to discuss the disability before you do it.

How to help a person who is visually impaired or blind

  1. NEVER pet, play, feed, or talk to a guide dog when he/she is working.  A guide dog is working when he/she is helping its owner.  Guide dogs are trained to act, behave, and guide people with visual impairments in certain ways.  If you are not sure if a guide dog is working, ASK the guide dog’s owner first.  Also, note that people with visual impairments do not want to be noticed and receive attention simply because they have dogs.  While many people love dogs, these pets are trained to help their owners and should be treated accordingly.
  2. If a person who is visually impaired looks disoriented, you may approach him/her and ask if they would like assistance.  However, if they insist that they are ok and do not want help, leave them alone.  Independence is a crucial skill for people with disabilities, so when they insist you do not help them, they really mean it.  If the person does ask for help, do not assume you know how to help him.  Ask how he would like you to help him before you touch him.  You do not want to startle the person or have him not trust you.
  3. If a person grants your help, offer him your arm, do not take his.  People with visual impairments depend on their arms for balance.  Also, they cannot see when someone is about to grab their arm.  Therefore, you should always offer your arm as opposed to grabbing his.
  4. Always identify yourself and/or others when engaging with a person who is visually impaired.  Remember that people with visual impairments cannot see physical cues that people without visual impairments can.  It is important to be verbal when spending time with a person who is visually impaired.  Not only should you do this in social situations, but also in situations where you are simply helping someone.  For example, if you are a policeman and you see a person with a visual impairment struggling, it would be wise to introduce yourself.  Tell the person your name and that you are a policeman.  This will make the person feel much more comfortable when receiving your help.
  5. Be verbal.  This is worth repeating.  Always be verbal.  Let a person with a visual impairment know if there are any hazardous objects/situations approaching.  If you are walking with her in a place with which she is unfamiliar, give her verbal cues about where it is you are going (i.e. “we are going to go down a hall, go to the left, go down the steps, and then through a doorway to reach our destination”).  This helps prepare the person you are helping.

How to help a person who walks with crutches

  1. Always ask the person if they need help before helping him/her.  Sometimes people with physical disabilities appear to be struggling, when in actuality they are just acting in a way that works best for them. I know this from personal experience.  Opening doors can be hard, but I have found ways to do it; therefore, always ask before you help.
  2. Never touch a person’s equipment.  Whether it be crutches, a wheelchair, a white cane, or a guide dog, it is in your best interest to avoid handling equipment that belongs to someone with a disability.  You may not know how to handle the object, or how fragile it is, so do not touch these aids.  If, for example, a person’s crutches are on the floor and you are unsure if she can bend down to pick them up, ask her first.  She will let you know if she needs assistance.  Otherwise, show the person respect by respecting her equipment because it is as much a part of her as an arm or leg is part of you.
  3. If you witness a person fall, ask before you help him.  Many times when people fall it is expected that you lend them a hand and help them get back up.  However, when people with disabilities fall, the consequences could be much worse than embarrassment (broken bones, etc.).  Ask the person how you can help them and go from there.

How to help a person in a wheelchair

  1. Never lean, push, or sit on a person’s wheelchair.  Just as crutches are part of a person’s body, a wheelchair is also a part of its user’s body and personal space.  No matter how friendly you are with the person, respect their space by not handling their wheelchair.  NEVER sit on a person’s wheelchair without their permission.  If the person can get out of his/her wheelchair, and he/she asks you to watch it while they do something (i.e. visit the bathroom), it is still not wise to sit in their chair.  You do not know the ins and outs of it like they do, and you do not want to break a piece of equipment that someone relies on for everyday or part-time use.
  2. Feel free to get on her level.  If it makes you feel comfortable to kneel or sit down in order to be at eye level with a person in a wheelchair, feel free to do it.  If you work in an office and a person who uses a wheelchair needs your service, sometimes it is necessary to come into the waiting room, instead of trying to peer over the desk.  Be aware of situations like these.  Again, people with disabilities want to be treated as equals in society, so it is perfectly reasonable to make accommodations in order to make them feel comfortable. 
  3. Keep ramps and accessible walkways clear.  It is very frustrating for wheelchair users to take alternate paths, designated as wheelchair accessible, only to be denied access to a building or store due to blockage.  Always think before you park your bike, car, or place objects on walkways without steps or ramps.

How to help a person with a social disability

  1. Respect a person’s personal space.  Some people who have social disabilities are sensitive to touch.  For this reason, it is imperative that you respect his/her personal space before engaging in physical contact.  “Can I have a hug?” is a question we all ask sometimes–don’t be afraid to ask!  In fact, it is better to ask first before you upset a person by invading their personal space.
  2. If a person with a social disability seems upset, feel free to give her some words of encouragement.  Sometimes people with social disabilities can become easily overwhelmed.  In this case, it is ok to talk to them in a calming voice to let them know that things are going to be ok.  Sometimes all it takes is a few words of encouragement to help them feel happy again.

How to help someone who is deaf or has hearing loss

  1. Speak clearly.  People who are deaf or have hearing loss can read lips.  If you speak clearly and project your voice (do not yell), they may need no other help. 
  2. Always make eye contact with the person, not his sign language interpreter.  It is very important that you have the conversation with the person involved, not the sign language interpreter.  By talking with the interpreter, you are excluding the other person.  Always talk with him/her as you would with anyone else, the sign language interpreter will take it from there.
  3. Write it down.  If the communication is not working, you may write down your messages to the person.  However, it would be best to ask, in written format, what he/she prefers before you have an entire conversation on paper, especially because there may be simpler options.

How to help someone with a speech disability

  1. Never finish sentences for him.  Once again, a person’s independence is very important.  If you are conversing with a person with a speech impairment, do not try to finish sentences or interrupt the person.  Be patient and allow the person to finish speaking before you begin talking.
  2. If you cannot understand him, ask him to repeat himself or repeat it to him for verification.  It is ok to ask a person with a speech disability to repeat himself.  It shows more effort on your part, as opposed to just nodding along.  If you understood most of the message, but are not sure it is what he said, repeat it to him for verification.  If you still cannot understand him, ask him to write it down.

How to help someone of short stature

  1. Never refer to someone as a “midget.”  The correct terminology for someone who has dwarfism is “little person.”  The term “midget” is very offensive.
  2. Be aware of items that are out of reach, and offer to lower any such items if the person may need them.  This is important.  If you know a little person is coming to your office or store, offer to help them with items up on shelves or countertops.  Also avoid using lower water fountains, bathrooms, etc. in case a little person needs to use that service.
  3. Feel free to get on her level.  Just like people who use wheelchairs, people of short stature are more comfortable at eye-level with people.  It can be very uncomfortable for a little person to constantly strain their neck looking up, so feel free to kneel or sit down in order to be eye-level.

How to help a person with a learning disability

  1. People with certain learning disabilities often prefer that material is spoken rather than written.  Often people with dyslexia or other reading disabilities have a hard time learning by reading.  Due to this factor, verbal information is much easier to process.  If someone asks you to read information to him, help him by reading it. 
  2. People with auditory learning disabilities often prefer information in written format.  If someone asks for written material, even after you explain it to her verbally, provide her with the material printed.  Some people do not disclose their disabilities; however, you can help by accommodating someone who asks for materials in print by giving them printouts to comprehend the information.
  3. Some learning disabilities require students to study, take tests, or focus in quiet areas.  If someone asks you to quiet down, you can either respect their wishes or go somewhere else in order for both parties to behave as they wish.

How to help a person with a developmental disability

  1. Respect and understand a person’s routine.  People with developmental disabilities are often most comfortable with routines that they can follow daily so that they know what to expect.  If a sudden change in routine occurs, help the person with the transition.  If you know that a schedule will be changing in advance, let the person know so that she/he can prepare for the change.
  2. Do not talk down to someone with a developmental disability.  While you should not talk down or “baby talk” to someone with a developmental disability, you should adjust your vocabulary and speech patterns accordingly.  Adjust yourself according to the person’s level of ability.
  3. If you cannot understand what she says, ask her to repeat herself.  You can ask her to repeat herself or repeat back what you heard and ask for verification.  Do not nod and disregard her comments.

How to help someone with a seizure disorder

  1. If a seizure occurs, make sure the person’s head is out of harm’s way.  Do not try to help the person otherwise.  There is nothing else you can do while a seizure is occurring.  Once a seizure is over, reassure the person that he is safe and can have privacy to recollect himself if need be.
  2. Be aware of strobe lights and beepers.  These objects can trigger seizures and should not be used around people with seizure disorders.

Thank you for reading about how you can help people with varying disabilities.  If you have any suggestions for or questions about this page, please use the Contact Us page to e-mail Jackie Conley.