10 Ways to Support Self-Sufficiency for People With Disabilities

Enabling success

Landmark policies like the Americans with Disabilities Act and cutting-edge technologies allow people with disabilities to reach their fullest potential. Good community planning, lower-tech devices and common-sense adaptations provide practical methods to help people go about their lives safely and independently. Here are some useful ways to support self-sufficiency and improve inclusion in every realm.

Virtual meetings

“One form of technology that has changed my life is online meeting apps such as Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting or Google Hangouts,” says Alice Wong, a wheelchair user and research consultant living in San Francisco. On days when it’s difficult to arrange transportation, video-conferencing apps allow her to participate in conferences and events for social or professional purposes, says Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project. “It’s been an essential tool in my career, plus it’s a great way to stay in touch with friends when I do not have the energy to travel and see them.”


If you have arthritis, coping with a hot stove and cumbersome cookware becomes more challenging. Making your kitchen more efficient makes cooking easier, says Karen Jacobs, a clinical professor in occupational therapy at Boston University, and former president of the American Occupational Therapy Association. Using lightweight pots and pans, placing heavier items on lower shelves, getting smaller containers of food instead of 5- or 10-pound bags and having a wheeled cart to transport dishes or cooking products are simple fixes. Putting a pot on the stove first, then using a cup to fill it with water, is more manageable. Buying precut veggies or using an electric food processor spares you the exertion of chopping, and jar openers prevent painful wrist and hand twisting. Microwaves aren’t just for convenience — they’re essential for easier food preparation.

Eating and drinking

Plastic straws have become controversial, with bans proposed for environmental reasons (with nonplastic, reusable straws as replacements). “People who don’t have labels or don’t identify as having a disability [might not realize] some features in society have allowed people with disabilities to participate more fully and universally — like straws,” says Kelly Nye-Lengerman, a research associate with the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration. “If those things aren’t available, that makes the need for support much greater.” She describes the experience of a colleague who relies on a cup with a straw to drink water independently. Without that simple item, she says, a meeting scenario would change, for instance, with this person now requiring help from a fellow attendee or a personal care assistant. Similarly, adaptive silverware can allow restaurant or coffee shop customers to manage independently among fellow diners.

Workplace and campus

Voice-recognition software and smartphone reminders are great equalizers for employees and students. For instance, Dragon NaturallySpeaking converts anything that’s said directly from voice to text. “It’s an example of a piece of technology that really could allow a person with a disability to be more engaged in their workplace, even though it wasn’t necessarily a technology designed for people with disabilities,” Nye-Lengerman says. Anyone can benefit from reminders at work. To accommodate people with autism, for instance, pop-up reminders might include the words “go to break” and an image of the breakroom. Jacobs, who is also an ergonomist, notes that students dealing with stress, anxiety or time-management issues on campus can find coping more doable thanks to a variety of free smartphone apps.


Adaptive equipment like walk-in bathtubs and tub seats help people who might struggle getting in and out of a standard tub. Simple adaptions using inexpensive supplies from your local hardware store can make it easier to do daily activities and move safely throughout your home. Occupation therapists may use plumbing material like foam pipe insulation to wrap around a brush handle for easier gripping, Jacobs says. As needed, OTs might affix a non-slip material like Dycem beneath throw rugs that could otherwise turn into fall hazards for someone with a disability.

Shopping and reaching

If you have trouble reaching products from high grocery store shelves, think what it’s like from a scooter. Reacher grabbers are terrific tools for reaching not only upward but also deep into shelves, Jacobs says. She suggests shoppers take the device with them and advises store personnel to have them available for customers. These devices are also handy to use at home, particularly if you have issues with fine motor coordination. Most reacher grabbers cost less than $20, although you can spend more for streamlined folding versions. Alternatively, you could bypass stores altogether. “What’s really exciting now is that you can order so many things online to be delivered, often without extra costs,” Jacobs notes, from groceries to prescriptions to household supplies.

Public spaces

Entranceways, waiting rooms and common areas in public places such as libraries and businesses can be made more welcoming for everyone. Arranging chairs so they don’t block access is a simple example of universal design. That way, “people with a wheelchair could easily come through your ramp and not have an awkward space or bump into things,” Nye-Lengerman says. Community designs such as mixed-use zoning incorporate residences and common destinations to increase walkability. With safety features included, such as intersections with increased crossing time for pedestrians, people with low vision and other disabilities can go where they want independently.

Curbs and parking

City curbside parking leaves a lot to be desired for those with disabilities — drivers and passengers alike. “We are measuring handicap curbside parking and making sure that someone can get out of the car on the passenger side without hitting a tree or garbage,” says Jacobs of a Boston University student project. Curb cuts — wedges in curbs that ease the transition from sidewalk to street — are essential whether you’re using a walker, wheelchair or cane, or you’re a mother pushing a stroller, Jacobs says. Making sure curb signage is clear and cuts are visible, even in a snowstorm, is important.


Commuting with a disability brings extra inconvenience to morning and evening rush hour. Accessible transportation helps alleviate it. “Public transportation systems in some parts of the country are fabulous,” Nye-Lengerman says. However, commutes can be tricky, especially if you live at a significant distance from your workplace. For instance, she says, people with wheelchairs who need specialized transportation often find their workday disrupted as they’re picked up according to the driver’s schedule. Even to perform a job you’re perfectly capable of doing, she says, “you might come to the workplace late; you might have to leave early.”


Positive assumptions go a long way toward enabling success, inclusion and full lives for people with disabilities. The power of raised expectations — that people with disabilities can work, go to school, get married, have kids, drive a car or do anything else — “is pretty tremendous,” Nye-Lengerman says. Making workplaces open and accessible and expecting that people with disabilities can work is of major importance. “We do a lot of research on that,” she says. “Even people with really significant disabilities can work.” Gestures of simple humanity can ease the way for everyone. If you see somebody who needs assistance getting on the bus, lend a hand. “You could help somebody carry their groceries to the car,” she says. “It’s just being able to leverage everyday support from your friends and your neighbors.”

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10 Ways to Support Self-Sufficiency for People With Disabilities originally appeared on usnews.com