6 Simple Things You Can Do to Help People With Disabilities

December 3, 2022

On this International Day of Persons with Disabilities, December 3, Sepsis Alliance honors sepsis survivors who have long-lasting disabilities that affect how they function every day. “Life can change in an instant” may be a cliché, but it’s also very accurate. When it comes to sepsis, that instant can be anything. It can be the decision to go to bed instead of the hospital because all you want to do is sleep. Or it can be the paramedic who recognizes sepsis. It could also be the nurse in triage who sends you back to the waiting room – or into an examination room to be seen as soon as possible. There are so many instants that can change the course of your life, including leaving you with disabilities – both visible and invisible – once the crisis is over. An example of a visible disability would be an amputation, while an invisible one could be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

 How can we help those whose lives have changed because of sepsis? We can take many actions. Here are a few suggestions to get you started. 

1- Ask before assisting.

 It might be tempting to reach over and help when you see someone struggling with counting out change or carrying a grocery bag. But before you step in and take over, ask if they need help. People with disabilities don’t necessarily want – or need – your help. If they do want your help, ask them what you can do. For example, do you know how to help a visually impaired person cross a busy street? Ask them how they want to be guided but generally, the preferred method is to allow them to take your arm. This enables them to follow your body’s motion rather than you steering them. 

2- Speak directly to the person.

If you are interacting with someone with a disability, don’t address their companion unless they tell you to do so. Speak directly to the person. This happens to many people who have obvious disabilities. People who use wheelchairs often tell stories of individuals, even medical professionals, speaking over their head to their walking companion instead of them, despite their ability to speak for themselves, sometimes still after being told who to address. 

3- Don’t handle their equipment without permission.

 Touching someone’s crutches, walker, or wheelchair without permission is like invading their personal space. The equipment may be set up in a certain way that could be disturbed by your handling. If the person is in a wheelchair, don’t start pushing the chair without consent. This is important even if they seem to be struggling. Always ask first. 

 This is also true for living helpers. If the person you are interacting with has a service dog that helps them manage their disabilities, don’t ever touch the animal without permission. Usually, the rule of thumb is don’t pet, feed, or otherwise distract service dogs while they are working. 

4- Don’t be quick to jump to conclusions.

The person in line who didn’t respond when you said “excuse me” might not be ignoring you. They might not have heard you. Or, they may have difficulty processing things and can’t respond as quickly as you expect. They may have an invisible disability, one that you can’t see. 

5- Keep walkways and ramps clear.

 Sidewalks and ramps shouldn’t be blocked with garbage and recycling bins, locked bikes, bunches of raked leaves, piles of snow, or anything else. Even small obstacles can narrow the path too much for people who have difficulty walking or seeing, or who use wheelchairs. Added bonus? It also helps others, such as people pushing strollers or using grocery carts. 

6- Leave handicapped parking for those who need it.

 The only people who should park in handicapped zones are those with special cards or license plates that give them that right. Even if there are a few spots and all are empty, non-disabled people shouldn’t park there, no matter how fast you’ll be in and out of the store. You never know when one, two, or more vehicles will arrive and need to use those spots. 

 Handicapped zones are located closer to doorways and are usually larger than regular spots. This allows vans to open and lower ramps – and still leave enough room for the person to guide a wheelchair onto the ramp. Larger spots also allow companions the room to help people get in and out of the vehicle. And remember, disabilities aren’t always obvious. For example, someone with a permit for handicapped parking may have a disease that doesn’t allow them to walk more than a few hundred feet at a time. 

Life for sepsis survivors

Many sepsis survivors recover from their illness and resume life as they knew it, but many don’t. They need to learn how to live with their new disabilities, be they limb loss from amputations, going to the hospital for dialysis because of kidney failure, or trying to cope with short-term memory issues. How the people around them react can impact how well they learn to cope. 

 To learn more about life after sepsis, visit the Sepsis Survivor page, where you will find information on post-sepsis syndrome (PSS), mental health issues, and other topics.