It can be really difficult to know how to support someone with a disability. No one wants to say the wrong thing or make someone feel like you don’t get them. But saying nothing at all implies you don’t care. Making sure you’re helpful and not inadvertently patronizing to someone with a disability can be tricky. And it can depend on the individual person as well as their disability too. Here are some pointers to help you help them.

So many people in society have disabilities or additional needs. It’s not uncommon. But people can get really tongue-tied when trying to help. Or they can overthink things and end up feeling at a loss of how to even approach the situation.

Helping someone with a disability is about recognizing that you want to empower them without undermining their autonomy. Here’s more about how you can help someone without patronizing them.

Just Ask

The most straightforward approach is often the best. If you want to help someone with a disability, just ask. It’s okay to admit that you’re not sure of the best way to assist. Saying something like, “I’d like to help, but I’m not entirely sure how. What do you need?” can open up a dialogue and ensure that your support is genuinely useful. This not only shows that you care but also respects the individual’s autonomy by allowing them to dictate the terms of the assistance they require. Remember, clear communication is key to understanding and meeting someone’s needs without assuming or accidentally patronizing them.

Practical Support

Offering practical support is a good starting point if you want to help someone with a disability. Help with daily tasks that you’ve noticed are difficult for them. Offer to run errands, like dropping kids at school, or getting an electric scooter battery replacement. Whatever needs doing! And make sure there are accessible options when you go out together. Simple actions like offering to carry a bag, reading a menu out loud in a restaurant, or checking in advance if an event location is wheelchair-accessible can make a difference. Such gestures help in addressing immediate needs and making everyday activities more manageable and inclusive. It’s important, however, to wait for acceptance of your offer to help, as this respects the person’s independence and decision-making authority. Through practical support, you can provide meaningful assistance while fostering a respectful and supportive relationship.

Emotional Support

Listen actively and empathetically to the person you’re supporting. People with disabilities may face unique challenges and frustrations, and having someone who listens and validates their feelings without judgment can make a difference. Be a dependable confidante and offer encouragement when it’s needed most. Encourage their strengths and celebrate their achievements. Be friends! Emotional support involves being present, offering a shoulder to lean on, and acknowledging the person’s feelings and experiences. This type of support can strengthen your relationship and provide comfort and solidarity for someone navigating life with a disability.

Educate Yourself

Take the initiative to educate yourself about the person’s actual disability. Find out about the specific challenges and accommodations that may be necessary. Doing this can show that you are genuinely invested in supporting the person. It also demonstrates respect and understanding towards their unique experiences and needs. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but make sure they come from a place of genuine curiosity and not condescension or pity.

Be Mindful of Language

Language is powerful, so be mindful of how you speak about and to someone with a disability. Avoid using terms that are derogatory or offensive, even if they are commonly used in society. Be open to learning the appropriate terminology for their specific disability and use it when referring to them. If you’re unsure, ask politely how they would like to be addressed or referred to. People-first language is also crucial, which means putting the person before their disability. For example, say “a person who uses a wheelchair” instead of “a wheelchair-bound person.” People with disabilities are not defined by their disabilities and should be treated as individuals with unique talents, interests, and personalities.

Ask for Feedback

Asking for feedback after you’ve helped someone with a disability a few times. This might sound like something you’d expect at work, but why shouldn’t you have this mindset personally too? The point of getting feedback is to spark growth and improvement. If you really want to help someone, ask them how you’re doing, and make them feel like it’s ok to tell you the truth. This means you’ll need to approach the conversation with openness and a genuine desire to learn how you can provide better support. You might say something like, “I want to make sure my help is actually helpful to you. Is there anything I could do differently or better next time?” This shows your commitment to being supportive and reinforces the respect and value you have for their independence and perspective. Feedback provides an opportunity for both parties to engage in a constructive dialogue, ensuring that the support offered is effective, appreciated, and respectful of the individual’s needs and preferences. Remember, the goal is to empower them, respect their agency, and make adjustments based on their feedback to enhance the support you provide.

If you want to support someone with a disability, well done for noticing that someone needs help, and for wanting to do a selfless act. And wanting to get it right by ensuring you’re not patronizing is something more people should be able to reflect on. Supporting someone with a disability requires a thoughtful, respectful approach, and you can really make a meaningful difference in their life. This will ultimately create a positive and empowering connection that respects the person fully.