No matter who you are, your journey to this point has been filled with countless obstacles of all kinds. Whether it’s difficulties at work, struggles with education, or the simple uncertainty of wondering if you’re on the right path in life, each of us has to approach these obstacles in our own unique way. With that said, there are many people who must endure all of these obstacles and then some, who continually experience and overcome specific challenges that might not even occur to other people. This is particularly true for people with disabilities, who face a variety of unique obstacles in addition to the regular hurdles of everyday life.
A disability doesn’t just present new challenges in day-to-day routines. This unique obstacle also extends into people’s lives as a whole, and can often make their life journey that much more challenging. As someone who has lived their entire life with cerebral palsy, I’ve experienced some of these obstacles firsthand. And I can tell you that while many people have the best possible intentions when it comes to helping people with disabilities, many still aren’t sure exactly how to go about doing so.
If there’s someone in your life who has a disability, you may sometimes wonder how you can best support them. After all, people with disabilities are as capable, skilled, and independent as everyone else. And also like everyone else, people with disabilities need a helping hand from time to time. So what’s the best way you can show support?
1. Wait for their cue
One of the best ways you can be there for someone with a disability without coming off as overbearing or condescending is to simply follow their lead. Trust that if they need a hand, whether with something small or something big, they’ll let you know. Understand that people with disabilities know how to handle their daily life. It is their normal. Something may seem extra challenging to you because you are not used to navigating life the way they do. To them, it is likely not that difficult and could in fact be very easy.
People with disabilities have adapted to life by doing things a little differently and as a result have very different strengths than you do.
For example, as someone who has walked with walking aids all my life, I have stronger than average arms and hands. This makes opening doors, even ones people may consider heavy, easy for me. If you would like to hold the door for me it is much more helpful if you indicate your intention before I have grabbed the door for myself. This is for two reasons. Firstly, I am likely leaning on the door as I am holding it, so if you grab it from me I could lose my balance. Secondly, if I am already holding the door, to let you hold it for me I have to readjust my balance and move away from the door. This movement is awkward for me. So It really is easier if I simply hold the door myself.
Of course, you should never be afraid to check in on people and see how they’re doing, just be ready to offer a hand however you can if it’s needed. There’s nothing impolite about offering help, however you should always do so in a respectful way. And if they say no, don’t push the issue or insist, simply go on with your day if they’re not in need of assistance. Understand and respect that they know what they need best.
2. Understand their skills and weaknesses beyond the disability
If you want to help someone succeed, you need to have an understanding of their strongest and weakest points. People with disabilities are in no way infallible. Everyone makes mistakes, missteps, and sometimes needs a hand battling a tough obstacle. Never be afraid to acknowledge these errors as long as it’s in the effort of helping them grow as a person.
Once you get to know the person’s strengths, you can help sharpen their skills and push them to higher heights. For people in your life who live with a disability, pause once in a while to consider how you can include them in your own journey and in turn propel them on theirs. Is there a project you’re working on that could benefit from their experience? Do you know someone searching for a person with their skillset? In my experience, this is true of everyone, regardless of ability. In fact, my disability has made me an excellent problem-solver, an effective and compassionate listener, and exceptionally resilient. All of these things are great leadership skills for any team or life situation.
You must always avoid adapting the mindset that a physical or mental disability makes someone generally less capable. Find out where they excel, include them in important conversations, and grow alongside them.
3. Learn about different kinds of disabilities
Too often, we limit our idea of what a disability can be. Not all disabilities are easily noticeable, and some are completely invisible. Cerebral palsy, for example, has many different types and varies greatly in degree and how people are affected. No two cases in the world are exactly alike.
By educating yourself on the wide array of challenges faced by people with disabilities, you can open your mind and empathize with their own personal struggles. Not only will this help you to be more caring in your everyday life, you’ll also be able to more easily grasp the unique struggles faced by people with disabilities that you know personally.
4. Do your part to make the world a better place for people with disabilities
Even to this day, disabilities are stigmatized. We as a society carry all kinds of unconscious biases and assumptions about people with disabilities, and our world, in some cases, still isn’t being built with them in mind. As individuals, there’s only so much we can do to impact the state of the world for people with disabilities; as a community we can do so much more.
For that reason, it’s important to be an advocate for all people with all disabilities, not just the ones we’re familiar with, in order to make the world a better place for everyone. Use respectful language when referring to people with disabilities, open dialogues about accessibility and inclusion, and do your best for people with disabilities everywhere.
5. Challenge your assumptions
As they say, don’t judge a book by its cover. As I stated I have lived with a physical disability since I was born. I have walked with some form of assistive device from a very early age. Currently, I walk with 2 canes.
I’m going to share with you something you may find very surprising.
I don’t feel disabled, disadvantaged, or less than in any way on the inside. I am strong and healthy. I get sick less than once a year. I am working with a personal trainer twice a week and walk 10,000 steps a day. I am not in pain or on any medication. I have a university degree, an honors college diploma, and a professional accounting designation. I have served as a finance executive, won 2 bronze medals for my country in track, and I successfully maintain my home independently.
Yet when I walk into a room, something very interesting happens. Many people, not all, react to my presence by feeling the need to do something. I sense they don’t know what to do or say. I feel like people are uncomfortable and have the desire to fix or make something better. They seem so inspired simply because I am out in the world—meanwhile we have barely exchanged greetings.
All of this discomfort has made relating to people challenging. There are extra layers to understand and get through. There are times when I feel I have been overlooked for jobs or not invited to social events because of these added layers. This I feel is my biggest challenge related to walking with assistive devices. I feel others in similar circumstances would agree with me.
By the way, a set of stairs with a decent railing is not something I consider a barrier. In fact, I will often take the stairs because it is easier than the long, out of my way ramp.
I have also noticed many people who don’t have what the medical profession would consider a disability who have personally confided in me that they are in pain and have struggles with stairs or walking or a host of many other things. I have learned these people require much more help than I do.
How, then, do we truly help people with disabilities? You will notice that points 1 to 4 above, following someone’s lead when unsure, understanding, learning, asking, and doing your part, would be helpful to all people—not just people with disabilities. Check your assumptions and get to know people before you make decisions about what life is like for them, what they need, or want, and what they are capable of.
We will only have true inclusion when we stop labeling people and making assumptions about what the label means. Be curious, open-minded, kind, and respectful to everyone. Find and create opportunities to get to know them better. When you do, odds are you will discover people have challenges you never considered. I bet you will also find they have experiences and accomplishments you never thought of either. In the end, everyone will learn something and not just you. The world as a whole will be better off because of your willingness and effort to get to know someone better.
Support beyond inclusion
While it’s absolutely vital that we as a society work to tear down the barriers to accessibility that people with disabilities face, our end goal should go far beyond simple inclusion. People with disabilities are faced with a unique set of life challenges as-is, and struggling for their right to existence and inclusion is the last thing they should have to worry about. One day, the presence of people with disabilities will be as expected as that of anyone else, and until then you should do your part to include people with disabilities in your life and your network.
Remember to never discount the perspective and knowledge people with disabilities possess, and create meaningful relationships with them whenever possible. Not only is a disability not a hindrance to their skillset, it can also provide them with a valuable perspective that might give you a new outlook on your own life.
Having lived with cerebral palsy all my life, I’m no stranger to life’s obstacles. My journey has allowed me a unique perspective on how to overcome even the toughest roadblocks and detours. This life of mine has not only made me more resilient, it’s also offered me the insight needed to create a successful career as a business and spiritual life coach with so much to offer. If you’re interested in learning more about how life with a disability can create a one-of-a-kind perspective and approach to life, or you’re still wondering how best to support people with disabilities in their life journey, you can have a look at my website and contact me today!