Can I offer help to a disabled person without being patronizing?

2009-01-20 by

As a disability equality trainer, one of the dilemmas my participants have most frequently shared with me concerns the fear they have of coming across as patronizing towards a disabled person. Typically they describe a situation in which they’ve noticed someone who they think could use assistance, only to then stop themselves from offering any help.

They don’t want to be the well-meaning buffoon who drags a blind person across a road they didn’t wish to cross. They don’t want to be the person (I’ve met several) who approaches me and launches enthusiastically into faltering sign language until I can seize an opportunity to interrupt and explain that I don’t sign (whereupon we both end up red-faced and apologetic).

Many people fear embarrassing themselves and a disabled person by making an unnecessary approach. This awkwardness doesn’t only prevent people from offering help: some confess to desperately averting their gaze or avoiding eye contact with a disabled person in case they seem to be staring.

Perhaps there are disabled people who would be offended if anyone ever asked them if they needed help – but I’ve yet to meet any. I do, however, know plenty who are offended when help is delivered without a preceding enquiry.

The key thing is to always ask if it’s OK to help first and then, if there’s any doubt, how to help. It’s surprising how few people consider the option of asking. Instead the fear of rebuttal causes them to ignore disabled people entirely.

One training participant, Marie, recounted how she once saw a blind man by a station entrance asking people for help but being ignored. When she stopped and asked him if he needed help he gratefully answered ‘Yes please!’ and explained that he’d been calling out ‘excuse me’ to passers-by for 45 minutes! It turned out that he had been making his own way around the station for years and was actually a trainer for other blind people learning to travel independently. Unfortunately the station exit he normally used had been closed without warning, forcing him to seek another one and on this occasion get lost. All he wanted was someone to lead him to a familiar spot nearby from where he could continue alone.

Often the thing that leads to embarrassment and awkwardness in communication between disabled and non-disabled people is fear of doing the wrong thing. Let’s not be fearful of offering help or initiating a conversation: your offer of help will be appreciated even if politely refused. With all the disabling attitudes, lack of access and derogatory assumptions we put up with on a daily basis, believe me, your offer of help is a breath of fresh air. The words ‘Hello, can I help at all?’ will be welcome to any disabled person, even if the answer is ‘No, but thank you’.

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