Learning how to support a loved one with a disability can be challenging, not because of the individual’s limitations, but because knowing exactly how to be there or what to do can feel overwhelming. As a ‘bonus mom’ of a stepson with learning disabilities and neurological/muscular difficulties, I’ve often found myself navigating the back and forth of doing “too much” vs. not doing enough, or “babying” vs. letting him “fail” without support.
All that’s to say, it’s not easy knowing what to do. But the most important thing you can do—regardless of whether the disability is mental, physical, or both —is be there.
Here are ways to encourage, to show up, and to help create a vibrant life for your loved one by focusing on the ‘cans’ rather than the ‘can nots’.
1. Encourage Being Active & In Nature
One of the most difficult aspects of living with a disability, especially a physical disability, is recognizing that some things are harder (and maybe even impossible) for you to do.
Exercise is vital for maintaining a healthy body and mind, but that doesn’t always mean it’s feasible (or feasible in the same capacity it is for a non-disabled person).
For example, when my son wants to mountain bike with his friends or be on a contact sports team where so much of the play involves running and using his ankles, I have to often redirect or find other ways to get him active that won’t put him at risk. While I hate being the ‘bad guy,’ I know that he can enjoy similar activities in ways that don’t jeopardize his physical self (i.e. casual biking, walking, or playing flag football, just to name a few).
In fact, there are many ways to exercise, despite a physical disability or limitation: different forms of therapy, outdoor activities, and even therapeutic bikes. On his website, Joe Tarver Cycle for Life explains the benefits of therapeutic bikes for disabled people and how this can provide a similar opportunity to pursue something fun, active, and physical.
Supporting someone with a disability is all about finding workarounds, alternatives, and if nothing else, getting that person outside and in nature to feel connected to the world around them.
Bottom line: Having a disability doesn’t mean that you stop being active and enjoying life!
2. Support Engagement With Passions
Finding something to be passionate about, in my opinion, is the most valuable thing that anyone can do, regardless of whether or not they have a disability. However, for someone with a disability, it can be challenging if their limitations are barriers to doing what they love or want to try.
If you want to support a loved one with a disability, it’s important to involve that person in the conversation. If the disability is something that they were born with, then helping to create or provide options is so important for that person to realize they are not limited. If the disability was something that happened later in life, for example, as a result of an illness or accident, find out what that person enjoyed before their disability and create new ways to do those things.
Maybe that person loved painting, going for walks, or reading. If so, find ways that you can assist them in pursuing these passions to help them connect with their former selves! Or, help them find new hobbies so that they can explore different activities with your support.
3. Be Intentional With Your Time
Sometimes having a disability can evoke feelings of loneliness or isolation. Challenges due to mobility or communication can make it difficult for an individual to connect socially with others, so they may become withdrawn from normal conversations or activities.
The best thing you can do is make an effort to spend some quality time with your loved one. Whether alone or in a group, this time (and the prioritization of the time) will not only build a stronger connection, but help your loved one feel more engaged and excited about life!
4. Offer Emotional Support
The most important thing you can do for your loved one with a disability is simply to be there for them. Listen to their concerns, support their new pursuits, and provide the emotional support they need as they adjust to their limitations or life changes.
With time, patience, and love, they can learn to feel alive and vibrant once again.