Guide to Supporting a Friend or Family Member With a Disability

Almost 1 in 5 people in the US have a disability of some kind. This means almost everyone has someone in their life who is disabled. However, there are many types of disabilities and a huge range of needs that people with disabilities have. If you wish to support friends or relatives facing the challenges that come with disabilities, you’ll need to educate yourself about their particular situation. This guide is a good place to start.

Pay attention

To understand someone’s need, pay attention. Watch and listen so you’ll know if your friend or family member wants or needs physical or emotional assistance. Adjust your level of vigilance based on the person’s level of independence; a young child with severe disabilities obviously needs more assistance than an independent adult. Remember, always respect the personal space and privacy of your friend or family member.

Maintain balance

Although caring for someone with a disability can take extra attention and care, be sure to balance the needs of all family members as much as you can. For example, if you provide care for a child with a disability, take time with your spouse and your other children in balanced ways. Take advantage of respite care if your family member requires constant attention.

Tailor your assistance

Your offers of help to a friend or family member with disabilities should be need-based. This means that whether you’re offering physical help or emotional support you should tailor it so it is appropriate to their needs. Don’t offer to do things for someone that they can easily do, because a) it’s not helpful, and b) it can feel insulting.

Learn to advocate

If you can advocate effectively for your friend or family member with disabilities you may achieve better services on their behalf. Here are some ways to advocate for a person for disabilities:

  • Ask questions. Make sure any destinations you plan to visit are accessible. Find out what accommodations are available.
  • Know the law. Understand the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), any state and local disability regulations, and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Be aware of when and how to apply them.
  • Communicate. Inform medical personnel and other caregivers of special circumstances like allergies or treatment preferences.
  • Be a historian. Keep a complete and current medical history of your friend or family member.

Be responsive

It’s not easy to ask for help! Do your part by being responsive. This way, the person with disabilities will feel comfortable asking you for help. Remember these tips:

  • Be quick. if your friend or family member asks for help with some specific activity, try to respond quickly or they may no longer need your help;
  • Be kind. be gracious and kind when asked for help, and don’t make them feel guilty or as if you’re too busy; and
  • Be upbeat. be enthusiastic and pleasant so your friend or family member doesn’t feel they are burdening you.

Help with outreach

At times your friend or family member will need resources and special equipment that you can’t provide, but you may be able to help them get it. You can help them apply for grants, benefits like health insurance, Medicare, or veterans benefits.

Preparing for emergencies

It’s always a good idea to prepare for emergencies and disasters, but it’s even more important for people with disabilities. That’s because these kinds of events often strike without warning and leave people stranded at home—or require evacuation. Be aware of the kinds of emergencies and disasters that are possible where your friend and family member lives, and prepare for them carefully. Remember, even though they shouldn’t be, sometimes even emergency crews are not fully prepared to help people with disabilities.

Empower your friend or family member

Instead of focusing on limitations, focus on what your friend or family member with disabilities can do. Celebrate milestones and achievements. When someone asks questions about the disability, let your friend or family member speak for him- or herself if possible. Within the bounds of safe, healthy conduct, teach children with disabilities to be independent.

Validate their feelings and views

Everyone—whether they have disabilities or not—wants and needs to be accepted, heard, understood, and validated. You may not fully understand what your friend or family member copes with every day, but you can listen, believe what they say, and demonstrate that you know that what they’re going through is real. Remember that even when you can’t see a disability or the pain or challenges it causes, those things are still real.

Be compassionate

Unconditional love, compassion, and support are critical to every person, and and in a world that lacks compassion and doles out judgment, these things are particularly important to people with disabilities. Show your compassion in little ways; treat your friend or family member to a special meal or a movie night you know they’ll enjoy. Accept them and love them for who they are.

Balance being present with providing personal space

Living with disabilities in a world that values perfection can be lonely. This means spending quality time with your friend or family member with disabilities is important. At the same time, remember that a disability doesn’t negate the need for personal space and privacy. In addition, some disabilities demand extra rest and time to recharge, so make sure your loved one gets those things.

Make accessibility part of your planning

Whenever you plan social events and family get togethers, make sure accessibility is on your mind. Your friend or family member with disabilities needs to be included as much as everyone else. Know what activities they enjoy and which things they can and can’t do. Be aware of any appointments or other commitment they might have. Choose accessible locations, whatever that means for your loved one; for example, choose only locations with ramps, elevators, and ample hallways for a relative or friend in a wheelchair, and avoid loud places for a friend or family member with hearing loss.

Do the research

Know everything you can about your friend or family member’s disability. Do the research. This can be a challenge in the case of rare diseases, but you’ll find that there are other friends and families out there in the same position. Don’t stop with research: ask your friend or family member to educate you about their disabilities; never make uninformed guesses.

Be patient

Sometimes coping with disabilities can be frustrating. Remember, it’s frustrating for people with disabilities too—and they also have to worry about your reaction. Your support is critical, and so is your patience.

Be realistic

Think carefully about the kinds of support you are able to offer before making commitments. Consider your existing commitments, financial limitations, time constraints, and other obligations as you evaluate what kinds of support you are able to offer. If you are very limited in the kinds of help you can give, at least be sure to check in on your friend or family member so you can know when they need help and assist them in getting it.

Don’t be afraid to ask

If you’re wondering whether your friend or family member needs help with something, ask them in a respectful way. You can offer general help by saying something like, “let me know if you ever need anything,” or specific help such as, “will you need help with your upcoming move?” or “would you like me to swing by this weekend with dinner one night?”

Be a better listener

Sometimes we get so caught up in what we want to say that we forget to listen. This is sometimes true because we want to help, or we’re excited about the conversation. Learn to listen well so that you can provide meaningful help and understand what’s really needed. Wait until your friend or family member is finished speaking before you respond, and make sure you are focused on what they are saying as they talk. Don’t think about your response when they’re talking.

Work with a support network

Reach out to other friend and family members in your friend or family member’s support network. Help them get involved with the plan for providing care or support. Stay in regular contact with the primary caregiver if that’s not you. If major expenses come up, talk to people in the support network about pooling resources or start a crowdfunding effort. Work out caregiving schedules as needed.

Take care of your own needs too

Especially if you are the primary caregiver for someone with serious disabilities, it can be a challenge to care for your own needs as well. Don’t neglect this, however. You need to stay healthy for them, and for yourself. Remember these tips:

  • Maintain your hobbies, interests, and friendships.
  • It’s okay to be less than perfect—in fact, it’s mandatory! No one is perfect.
  • Share caregiving tasks with others who you rely on.
  • Take breaks.
  • Get exercise and eat well.
  • Pay attention to signs of illness.

The bottom line

There are so many ways you can support friends and family members with disabilities! We hope this guide has been a helpful starting point for you.