For the 2nd time this year, I participated in the REACH for college program run by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. During the program, there were a number of recurring topics that came up in discussion. One in particular, the idea that disabled people need help, caught my attention when one of the mentees coined the phrase:

Disabled, does not mean unable.

Whether it’s the dwarf at the grocery store who prefers to jump rather than ask for a lift, or the solitary paraplegic who considers rolling himself down the stairs, handicapped people everywhere seem to have a resistance to help that surpasses all understanding. All understanding of the “able,” that is.

But it wasn’t until I spoke to one of the REACH parents, that I realised that not everyone knows why this exists.

The reason is simple: self-respect. No self-respecting person likes to feel pitied. Now what does pity have to do with help? A lot more than you might think. Because pity, is the price disabled people pay for help. As every request for assistance, is followed by pity and sympathy.

See naturally, human beings sympathise with those they consider less fortunate than themselves. But to the distress of the disabled, this comes off as pity; and those who deliberately try not to seem pitying, end up making clumsy attempts at being considerate. Overall making any request for assistance, a painful one. As a result, over time, disabled people learn to avoid asking for help and reject it even when offered.

To be fair however, most people’s hearts are in the right place, they genuinely want to help – and their reactions while unappreciated, are not entirely unwarranted. Because truth be told, disabled people do need help. The question is, how can you help?

Again, the answer is simple: help by enabling us to help ourselves. As the saying goes, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime

Disabled people may not always appreciate a helping hand, but that is not to say we do not appreciate help at all. The dwarf who cannot reach the top shelf would likely be much more grateful if you brought him a step-ladder, than if you tried to pick him up. The paraplegic on the other hand, may prefer directions to the nearest elevator.

While it is also possible to learn the art of tactfully offering your direct assistance, it can be difficult to get it right. Instead, I suggest this approach. Because this way, your help will be appreciated and you minimise the risk of creating an awkward situation.