Have you ever found yourself in a space with a disabled person and you suddenly felt nervous because you were unsure about how to engage with them in a way that would be respectful and sensitive at the same time? I certainly have! I am not sure where it comes from, but there’s an awkwardness (for lack of a better word) that’s usually clouds these encounters because one, we are emotional beings prone to sympathy and empathy so it makes sense that your initial feelings after seeing a disabled person might be pity. It might actually be coming from a good place where you sympathize with the person for the challenges they face and how much they might struggle to do basic activities by themselves.
Before I got disabled, I was guilty of having these thoughts as well because I grew up thinking that all disabled people were living sad, pain marred lives (and most of us are, to be honest). What I came to realise afterwards is that it is unfair to assume that about all disabled people. If anything, it is demoralizing to those who are working so hard not to be defined by the disabilities they have. The best way I would tell you to handle a first time meeting with disabled people is to be more empathetic than sympathetic. Think of them as just people who have gone through some hard times and survived. Look at them as people first. Listen to them without prejudice, look into their eyes rather than their disfigured limbs, humanize them and soon you will notice that their disability isn’t that much of a big deal.
Once you have created a rapport with the individual and you might be interested in having some kind of relationship whether it is friendship or otherwise, be inquisitive about their lives in a non-pushy way. Express your desire to understand them more and seek to look at life from their perspective. This is important because if you want to be a true friend and ally to the disabled community, it is imperative that you educate yourself about their lives and understand what you can do to play your role in promoting inclusion and demystifying negative stereotypes. After all, disabled people have to contend with so much of all that.
While I am not saying that you need to participate in protests or march for their rights, it is in bad taste to have a friend who is in the vulnerable population and be oblivious of their challenges. For instance, you might educate yourself as to why some blind people like to be referred to as visually impaired or why accessibility is so important to those who use wheelchairs. You simply cannot ignore that part of their lives and still claim to be a friend and support.
Once you have cemented your relationship and established openness and trust, the next step might be a call to offer care. The chronology of events when you start hanging out with a disabled person is that there will come a time when they might need you to assist them with something that they are unable to accomplish by themselves. By virtue of them asking you, they are expressing their trust and ability to be comfortable around you.
Hopefully, you are also comfortable being present for them. There are some paramount guidelines for offering care to any disabled person. Let’s say your friend needs help with transferring from their wheelchair to car or they need you to help them put on a jacket when it’s cold. Remember this acronym, ALOHA.
ASK – what they need and how you can help, let them show you how they usually do what they need help with.
LISTEN – pay close attention to what they are saying, try not to interrupt or offer your own solutions. Caregiving often thrives off routine so they have gotten used to doing things a certain way.
OBSERVE – be attentive as they show you where you are supposed to hold them, where to pull and generally how to handle the situation.
HELP – Once you have internalized all the information that has been offered to you and feel confident that you understood everything, feel free to assist.
ASK AGAIN – this is a very important part of giving care. Once you have helped them, ask if they are okay, comfortable and if they might need assistance with anything else.
From Stairs To Ramps: Why Disabled People Have To Be Brave In Order To Live Fulfilling Lives