Practical approaches to assisting disabled people

Participants learn techniques to lift and transfer an immobile person safely and efficiently.

“WE want to help but we don’t know how,” a participant of a disability-related services training (DRST) workshop shared how his lack of skills and knowledge in assisting disabled people made him fearful of lending a hand whenever he saw a need.

This sentiment was echoed by participants from other DRST workshops. They were keen to learn even simple skills such as interacting and communicating with disabled people. A few revealed they were afraid of offending our sensitivities by uttering inappropriate words.

From their frank and honest feedback, I could see there is a real need for such training. They are more than willing to help but their lack of knowledge is making them hesitant and holding them back. At the same time, major corporations are also beginning to see the need for their frontline staff to be educated and equipped with skills to provide better service to all their customers.

Since June this year, I have conducted five workshops for approximately 150 participants of managerial levels from three major Malaysian-based conglomerates on proper and safe techniques to assist disabled people. I focussed on physical disabilities and worked in tandem with trainers who are specialised in other disabilities, chiefly hearing, visual and learning disabilities. More of such workshops are in the works.

Interacting and communicating with disabled people don’t have to be awkward and uncomfortable. There is no need to shower us with any special treatment or be extra cautious with words when speaking to us. The main point to remember is that we are humans just like everyone else. We have feelings and emotions. Treat us how you would treat other people. It is just that easy.

Don’t assume we need help just because we have impairments. Sometime we don’t need help, other times we do. Please don’t feel offended when we decline offers of assistance. We are not being snobbish. We appreciate the thought but we would like to do as much as possible by ourselves. However, please don’t hesitate to offer us help when we appear to be struggling.

It is always better to speak to us directly instead of through our companion. This is something that happens to me quite often at restaurants, department stores and at service counters. The staff would speak to my wife first even though I was the one who required service or wanted to buy an item.

When this happens, either my wife will politely tell the staff to speak to me directly or I will respond while my wife keeps quiet. I can make decisions for myself and certainly can respond when spoken to. There is no need to get my wife to relay questions to me when I am the potential paying customer and right there in person.

Disabled people may appear to have similar impairments but our abilities and needs may be different. Therefore, it is better to ask if assistance is required and how to help. First and foremost, safety must be of utmost priority. This is to prevent injuries to the person helping and the person being helped.

The risks are real. For example, using brute force alone to lift a wheelchair may result in lower back strain, or even worse, a slipped disk. The effects from the latter can be long lasting and will affect many daily activities that require lifting.

I recently met a man who has been living with a bad back for the past 20 years. He sustained the injury in his early 20s from causes not related to helping disabled people. Treatments could only alleviate his condition and not cure it. He has difficulty sitting up for an extended period of time. Even carrying moderately heavy objects can exacerbate his condition. Therefore, the emphasis is on safety first before anything else because prevention is always better than cure.

What most participants found most interesting were the practical sessions. This was where they got hands-on experience in lifting and transferring an immobile person, and proper techniques to push and handle wheelchairs. Being keen to help, learning such simple techniques was a great leap in knowledge and skills for them.

During the times that I required such help, especially when I was at the airport, I discovered many of the personnel who were tasked with helping disabled people didn’t possess the necessary skills. Their lack of training was apparent. With that in mind, I made certain participants in my workshops use the correct techniques in lifting and transferring an immobile person so that they could do it properly when faced with real life situations. This is crucial in ensuring the dignity, safety and comfort of both parties.

Pushing a wheelchair may appear to be easy but there are subtle pointers to do it in a way that can make the wheelchair user feel at ease. The assistant should maintain a smooth pace when pushing, be aware of barriers along the path and slow down when turning. These are sensible tips but for people who have never pushed a wheelchair, it was a revelation they found useful.

There is one way to go up a ramp but two ways to go down depending on the gradient. One participant asked how to know if a ramp is too steep to go down frontwards. The best way is to ask the wheelchair user and also to trust their own gut feeling. If they have no confidence of going down frontwards, then going down backwards is probably the safer bet.

They also learnt how to tilt the wheelchair backwards, and how to get it on and off the pavement. This was one of the more essential skills seeing that the built environment is full of barriers such as these. They made some mistakes at first but quickly grasped the correct techniques when they were pointed out to them.

At the end of these workshops, I always felt satisfaction seeing the happy faces of the participants at having acquired new skills they can use in the course of their daily work. Being at managerial levels, they are also in positions to impart the knowledge to their subordinates. Interacting and assisting disabled people is not difficult if one has the know-how. All it takes is the willingness to learn and a lot of common sense.

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