A Partners Guide to Physical Disability

September 25, 2018


Health and recovery


Tolu Ajiboye

It can be really hard watching your loved one come to terms and live with becoming physically disabled. What should you do? What should you say to comfort them? How can you help? These are the questions you may have running through your mind over and over again. Luckily, you can help. There’s plenty you can do for your loved one or partner during this trying and life-changing period.

Understanding your loved one’s disability

What is a physical disability? It’s basically any significant limitation on ones physical functioning that affects how they perform life’s major activities. Physical disabilities vary widely in terms of their severity and how much they affect daily living. Your loved one may become physically disabled after experiencing a work injury, being involved in a car accident or even from falling ill. Acquired physical disabilities run the gamut from paralysis to blindness, all the way to hearing loss.  

Physical disabilities are very common. At least 4.3 million people in Australia have a disability, and for 78.5% of this number, the main disability is physical in nature. The disability may be ever-present or it may fluctuate/be intermittent. Generally, physical disability affects one, more or all of the following: mobility, self-care, work tolerance, and communication.

Physician helping patient on wheelchair
There’s plenty you can do for your loved one during this trying time. Source: iStock

How your loved one feels

Disability can be a huge hit to one's mental well being. Before you can effectively help your loved one out, you must first understand what they may be thinking or feeling.  

“Your loved one who has just acquired a physical disability may experience a variety of emotional reactions, such as anger, frustration, sadness, and anxiety. The disability-related distress arises from the changes that have occurred to their functioning and losses of previous roles and daily functions. These emotional reactions are understandable for these changes especially when they’re just adapting to their new abilities.” Dr. Bonnie Sturrick breaks it down thoroughly.

 “It is important for you to validate these reactions e.g., “I notice your feeling frustrated and that’s ok” and to balance this with discussion around change which helps with independence e.g., “what do you think would be helpful to try?”.”

There is also a strong link between physical disability and mental health disorders. It is very possible that after becoming disabled, your loved one will develop a mental health issue. The most common issues people with disability face are depression and anxiety. At least 29% of people in Australia with a disability have an anxiety disorder.

“These conditions -anxiety, depression and poor adjustment- are made up of a variety of biological, psychological, and behavioral changes, such as poor sleep, excessive tiredness, loss of appetite, excess guilt, rumination, and the fight/flight response. These changes impact on the person's ability to function in studies, work, and/or in relationships.
These conditions, on top of the physical disability, are considered a double-disability further impacting the person’s functioning over and above the physical changes.” Dr. Sturrock further explains how these conditions actually affect your loved one/partner.

Other major issues your loved one may face are:

Social isolation: Depending on the kind of physical disability your loved one has, they may no longer be able to move around or even leave the house at all. Feelings of social isolation and loneliness may then creep in as your loved one may feel cut off from friends, family members and the community at large.

Body image issues: Having a visually different body or altered physical abilities a lot of times lead to self-esteem issues. Struggling to adjust to a new look can make one have a negative body image. Disability discrimination also doesn’t help. A lot of people with physical disability will experience being discriminated against either by individuals, public establishments and even employers.

Medication side effects: Many drugs (especially pain relievers) that are prescribed for people living with physical disabilities have mental side effects. In some cases, drug abuse and addiction becomes a high possibility.

Man in wheelchair hugs his girlfriend
Disability can be a huge hit to one's mental health. Source: iStock

How can you help?


- Help with achieving ADLs: ADLs are activities of daily living. Basically, they’re daily self-care tasks and activities, like feeding, bathing, grooming, and toileting, that your loved one may need help with. Depending on the intensity of assistance needed, you may want to provide this help yourself or employ a professional caregiver to do so.

- Home modifications: Depending on the type of physical disability your loved one has, it may become necessary to make some modifications to your home and vehicle such as the inclusion of wheelchair ramps and grab rails.

- Promote independence: In as much as you should help your loved one carry out his/her daily tasks, it’s important that it’s done in a way that promotes their independence. This means that you shouldn't get in the habit of doing every single thing- leave some easily achievable tasks to your loved one, and help them learn others if possible. An easy way to do this is to put yourself in the frame of mind of doing these tasks and activities ‘with them’ rather than ‘for them’.

- Physical therapy reminders: It is very possible that in the early stages of becoming physically disabled, your loved one may have to undergo physical therapy of some sort. Helping them keep these appointments is crucial.

Emotionally and mentally:

- Become more educated about the disability: One of the most important things you can do for your loved one is to continually educate yourself on the kind of disability they have and how it affects their daily living. It’s way easier to empathise and help when you have a better idea of what exactly your loved one is facing.

Also, keeping up with the disability means that you’ll be well aware if any new therapies, treatments or technologies are developed that can help improve the quality of your loved one's life.

- Suggest therapy: Advise your partner or loved one to see a psychologist/therapist to help them deal with any mental and emotional issues they may have as a result of their disability. Professional therapy and counselling will help them come to terms with the disability in a healthy way, maintain a good self-esteem and resolve any mental health issues they may have.

Also, with these things, it's really just good to be able to speak to someone qualified to help out.

- Encourage joining a support group: Consider encouraging your loved to join support groups or networks with people that have similar physical disabilities.

- Encourage job search (if possible): Finding and keeping a job can do wonders for your loved one's self-esteem and independence. Whether it's gaining employment at a traditional 9-5 or working from home, there are many job options available that you can encourage them to pursue.

- Promote social inclusion: Plan social events and activities with other friends and family that your loved one can comfortably participate in and enjoy.

Feet near inspirational quote
Don't forget to also look after your own well-being. Source: iStock

Taking care of your self

"It is very important for you to focus on looking after your own well-being because without this it becomes harder to care for another person in the best capacity." Dr. Sturrock says, This means you need to prioritise yourself at all times- for you and your loved one. Here are a few ways you can do this:

- Get peer support: If you can, seek out people who share similar experiences with you in terms of having a loved one with a physical disability.

- Take time off: “Practicing self-compassion and having regular scheduled rest and recreation times are helpful.” Dr. Sturrock further advises. If you can afford it, and your loved ones physical disability demands it, get a professional caregiver to fill in during those breaks. Otherwise, don’t be afraid to ask friends, family, and members of your community to help out too.

- Get therapy: If you feel like your mental and emotional wellbeing is being seriously affected, you should consider speaking to a qualified therapist. Support networks could also be a great alternative to this.

- Be realistic about your abilities: It’s important to be practical and pragmatic about what you can and cannot do. This is especially needed if your loved one's disability is severe very limiting.

“Caring for another person can be one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences in life. It requires a great deal of strength and persistence, and experiencing uncomfortable emotions is understandable. The practice of self-compassion can assist with responding to any emotional reactions that arise. This is taking a caring response to our own inner reactions, allowing the emotion to be there rather than telling yourself that it’s not ok to feel.” Dr. Sturrock guides.
“Usually, with this practice, the emotional reaction will be less intense and pass more quickly. Also, connecting with our heart or values about how we would like to care is important for daily actions and choices."

About the expert

Dr Sturrock is a clinical psychologist who works in private practice in Melbourne, Australia. She is a scientist-practitioner who has over 15-years of experience working and/or studying in the area of mental health, and has been trained in various forms of psychological therapy with a strong influence on the provision of CBT. She is also a Board Approved Supervisor to training psychologists.

Tolu Ajiboye

Tolu Ajiboye is a contributor to the Smith's Lawyers blog for topics including injury recovery and mental health. Her work has been published by The Guardian, NBC News, Health Magazine and Entrepreneur Magazine.