Should I offer to assist a person with disability?

Posted 8 months ago by Andrew Barbara

In a world that continually strives for inclusivity, empathy and compassion, many of us frequently grapple with the ethical and practical considerations of offering assistance to individuals with disability when we witness them navigating life’s daily challenges. 

The desire to help and make a positive impact is a fundamental human instinct, yet it often accompanies a cloud of uncertainty regarding whether our offer to help might inadvertently cause discomfort or draw attention to a person’s disability.

In this comprehensive article, we will delve deeper into the intricacies of offering assistance to someone with a disability, providing insights, considerations and real-life examples to help you navigate these situations with the utmost empathy, respect and tact.

The dilemma of offering assistance

Offering assistance to someone with a disability can be a multifaceted and delicate situation to navigate. On one hand, the impulse to extend kindness and support is noble; however, on the other hand, the spectre of unintentional offence or the potential to undermine an individual’s autonomy looms large. Striking a balance is of paramount importance and approaching each situation with heightened sensitivity is key to fostering a culture of inclusivity.

Case study: a chance to help

Let us commence with a real-life example that vividly underscores this dilemma. Picture yourself in a bustling shopping mall on a busy Saturday afternoon. In the midst of the hustle and bustle, you notice a woman with a visual impairment earnestly attempting to locate a specific store. Your empathetic instincts implore you to assist, but you grapple with the complexities of the situation. 

This scenario encapsulates the very essence of the conundrum that many individuals encounter daily when they come face-to-face with someone with a disability who may be in need of assistance.

Considerations for offering help

Respect autonomy: the primary consideration that must guide your actions is a profound respect for the individual’s autonomy. It is imperative to recognise that people with disability cherish their independence and agency and it is incumbent upon us not to presume they require assistance or to impose our help upon them.

Example: as you observe the visually impaired woman in the mall, her use of a white cane and apparent self-assuredness indicate that she may be navigating her surroundings confidently. In this instance, a prudent approach would entail refraining from immediate assistance and instead, being observant of her actions, acknowledging her autonomy while remaining attentive to her potential needs.

Assess the situation: engaging in a moment of discrete observation becomes vital. It is essential to ascertain whether the individual genuinely requires assistance or if they are capably managing on their own. Your willingness to assist should be grounded in a tangible need, rather than assumptions or stereotypes.

Example: the visually impaired woman in the mall may exhibit a level of self-sufficiency that suggests she is proficient in manoeuvring through the space. In such cases, it would be judicious to wait and offer your assistance only if she unmistakably encounters difficulties or explicitly seeks aid.

Ask politely: should you determine that your assistance might be beneficial, the next step is to approach the person respectfully and with deference to their autonomy. Initiating contact by politely inquiring, “excuse me, would you like some assistance?” demonstrates your willingness to help while acknowledging the individual’s right to accept or decline assistance without feeling coerced.

Example: you approach the woman and gently inquire, “excuse me, would you like some assistance finding the store you’re looking for?” This approach not only respects her autonomy but also grants her the agency to choose whether to accept or decline your offer.

Listen and respect their response: respect for the individual’s decision is paramount. If they decline your offer, it is imperative to respond with grace and courtesy. They may possess their own methods of coping with challenges or may prefer to maintain their independence at that particular moment. Always bear in mind that the decision rests with them.

Example: the woman graciously declines your offer, expressing her familiarity with the mall’s layout and her preference for autonomous navigation. In response, you offer a warm smile and say, “Certainly, if you ever change your mind, I’m here to assist.”

Be mindful of body language: attentiveness to the individual’s body language and verbal cues is a crucial aspect of assisting. If their demeanour appears receptive to help, proceed cautiously, following their lead.

Example: while talking with the woman, you notice a subtle hesitance in her demeanour that may indicate a potential openness to guidance. Accordingly, you offer, “if you’d like, I can accompany you to the store and provide verbal directions as we go.”

Offer specific help: precision in your offer of assistance is vital. When extending help, specify the nature of the aid you can provide. For instance, you may say, “I can hold the door for you,” or “I can assist you in carrying your shopping bags to your vehicle.” This clarity in your offer underscores your willingness to assist while avoiding assumptions about their specific needs.

Example: as you accompany the woman to the store, you offer to hold the door for her, which she gratefully accepts. Additionally, you ask whether she would appreciate assistance with carrying her shopping bags to her vehicle after she completes her shopping.

The innate desire to offer assistance to a person with disability is a commendable reflection of our shared humanity — fueled by empathy and the aspiration to make a positive difference in someone’s life. However, navigating such situations demands a judicious blend of empathy, respect for individual autonomy and a capacity to adapt to the unique needs of each situation. The real-life example of the visually impaired woman in the mall vividly illustrates that offering assistance can be a profoundly meaningful gesture when done with a genuine intention to help and a commitment to safeguarding an individual’s independence and dignity.

By adhering to these considerations, we can contribute to the creation of a society that is not only more inclusive but also more compassionate and considerate. In this inclusive and empathetic society, every individual’s dignity remains intact and assistance is proffered in the most conscientious and considerate manner possible, enriching the lives of individuals with disabilities and nurturing a community characterised by inclusivity, understanding, and genuine human connection.