Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Adaptive Living – How to Help

What to do when a friend, spouse or employee becomes disabled

If you have a family member, friend, or employee who has experienced a permanent disability, you may feel conflicted between two opposing thoughts:
  • I want to help and encourage them.
  • I don't know how to help and encourage them, and I'm worried that I might make matters worse for them.
These feelings are understandable. Especially because, as a close friend or family member, it may be hard to find the right balance between helping and getting in the way; between tough love and insensitivity; between encouraging and badgering. Most likely, the wrong approach is taking no approach. There is risk in reaching out and offering help, but that risk is small compared to the loneliness of frustration of being in a state of total permanent disability without a support community. To help you help them, consider the following tips and guidelines.  

How to be a supportive friend or family member

Communication is key to getting on the right path as a friend or loved one. Offer your assistance and ask for what help they might need, whether that is transportation, dressing, bathing, walking, or whatever. It's best not to assume and just start helping; this may embarrass or frustrate the disabled person, who may be trying to learn how to do things on their own and thus find your attempt to assist to be unhelpful. 

However, knowing that you are willing to help can mean the world to them. One simple example of this from my own life: Shortly after my injury, I would put a shirt on, only afterward remembering that I wanted to wear it with the sleeves rolled up. With only one good hand, that meant I had to either take off the shirt and roll the sleeves in advance, or hope that there was a good friend nearby who wouldn't feel embarrassed or bothered by me asking them to roll up the sleeve I couldn't reach.

Other ways to help:
  • Talk with others who have experienced a similar physical disability. Ask their advice on do's and don’ts toward being helpful.
  • Review steps you can take to conform the home to accommodate the person's new immobility.
  • Go to to find opportunities in your area where you can make a difference in the lives of others who have a permanent disability.
Most important: reach out to the disabled friend or family member regularly. After a major and debilitating injury, friends and family often flock to the recovery room at the hospital, but then disappear from their lives afterwards. Adaptive living takes time. Be available to them through the passage of time.

How to be supportive as an employer

As an employer, you are likely feeling an interest in taking action on two different levels: that of being a good mensch and that of being in legal compliance. For both of these, here are some tips:
Adaptive living
Employers can provide a support community
for employees with disabilities.
(Image from
  • Walk a mile in their shoes. Imagine yourself going through the same type of physical disablement as your employee. Consider physically and mentally walking through the experience of coming to work, approaching the workstation, taking restroom or lunch breaks, and performing the work, except doing so as this newly disabled employee. Most likely, you will immediately recognize problem areas and can take actions proactively to make the work environment more adaptive to their condition.
  • Get professional advice  If your company is large enough, there is likely a person in Human Resources whose job it is to help you make a disabled employee's work experience more productive or successful. If you are in a smaller company without that HR resource, look outside the organization for professional help. For example, if your employee is returning to work blind, contact The National Federation of the Blind (NFB), who will be more than willing to guide you in taking steps to be helpful and ADA compliant. 
  • Get online help.  Your first two stops should be (the U.S. Department of Justice Americans with Disabilities Act website) – and The first is chock-full of information useful for employers. The second provides resources on benefits, rights, emergency preparedness, employment, technology and transportation for employers of people with disabilities.
For a 10,000-foot view of what you need to consider as an employer, take a look at this brief article regarding how to do the right thing as an employer of the disabled. You might also want to look at the US Department of Labor's webpage Disability Employment Policy Resources by Topic.

Adapting through giving

One final thought on how to help as part of adaptive living is for the person now living with a total permanent disability

Speaking as a person who has experienced a permanent disability (read more about my injury in Adaptive Living – Adjusting Mentally and Adaptive Living – Adjusting Physically), I have found that nothing puts my head, heart, and life on a healthy track faster or better than actively reaching out to others who are recovering from the trauma of a recent physical disability. The more time I spent helping others, the less time I had available to bemoan my condition.

Helping others also created a kind of accountability; after all, it's hard for me to encourage others toward successful adaptive living without feeling a responsibility to model it in my own life. That kept me on track.

How can you "reach out" – give yourself to others experiencing paralysis or other types of physical disability? The first step is to look at your own recovery; especially those things that help you succeed.

For me, that included such things as recovering my ability to keep my career plans moving forward by learning how to type one-handed (I volunteered my time with occupational therapists and physical therapists to demonstrate the technique and offer encouragement) and learning how to do household activities successfully with one hand that most people can only imagine doing with two, such as tying shoes one-handed and food preparation/cooking one-handed.

In a similar fashion, look at your adaptive living successes; they are each an opportunity to help others adapt to their own impairment. With each volunteer effort you make, you benefit as well.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

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