Disability 101: When to offer help
June 10, 2008
Previously I have belabored the point that able-bodied people should not go overboard trying to help people with disabilities. Nevertheless, the fact remains that sometimes people with disabilities do need help. How does an able-bodied person determine when it is appropriate to help and when it isn’t?
I offer three rules.
1. Only offer help if it looks like the person with a disability is struggling.
2. Only offer help after you have allowed the person enough time to try doing it for themselves.
3. Always ask the person if they want help.
Let’s look at the first rule. I’ve had many people rush to help me when there was absolutely nothing happening to suggest that I might need help. I once was sitting outside in my wheelchair on a warm spring day, enjoying the sun and waiting for a friend. A couple came by and asked if they could help me. With what? Sitting there?
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In contrast, a different day I was obviously struggling. I had been mono-skiing with Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center and I was worn out as I was making my way through Breck to get home. This was early spring, and the ski resort employees had been working to break up the ice sheet on the sidewalks. They had chipped off the ice in some areas, but there was a 3-inch lip at one point where they had quit for the day and the bare pavement met the ice shelf.
I was on the bare pavement trying to get my wheelchair up the 3-inch lip onto the ice shelf. I was struggling. I had tried and tried but I couldn’t get up. A gentlemen watched me for a little while. He saw me struggling and knew I was having difficulty. After giving me a little time to try to do it myself, he said “Boy, that ice is really a problem. Would you like me to push you up?” I was quite grateful and accepted his offer. His help was needed and very appreciated.
Moving on to rule No. 2, when you see that a disabled person is struggling and may need help, first give them some time to try to do it themselves. It takes me longer to do things but that doesn’t mean I can’t do them. Please give me the time to try first. It seems that many able-bodied people are uncomfortable with me needing that extra time.. I often feel like I’m in a race because when it takes me a little longer, maybe bumbling around a bit, I always have a bunch of people rushing over to help. If they would just give me a little more time, I know I could do it. I want to do it.
I recommend that you utilize the “20 Second Rule”. If you see a person with a disability struggling, who looks like they may not be able to do something, first silently count to 20 before you offer assistance. I don’t mean count to 20 like this, “onetwothreefourfivesixseveneight”. Count to 20 like we did when we were kids playing hide-and-seek, “one-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three.”
If, after you have counted to 20, it looks like the disabled person is still struggling, then it’s okay to ask them if they would like help. Sometimes the person will want help and will be very grateful for your offer. Sometimes the person still won’t want help, even though they have been struggling for more than 20 seconds. However, people with disabilities always deserve the opportunity to make the choice. If they turn your offer down, accept their answer, and go graciously on your way.