Encouraging independence and empowerment in loved ones living with disability

January 11, 2023
Maddie Southall
As a carer or loved one of someone with a disability, how can you best support them in gaining independence and empowerment?

Carers, family members and friends play a crucial role in helping a loved one foster these personal development skills and choose the life they want. A great way to do this is by ensuring they have a strong support network within their community and assisting them in gaining skills and reaching personal goals. 

This article has been reviewed by our resident occupational therapist, Natasja Dekock,to provide the best information possible.

Expanding support networks through community engagement

One of the most important ways of building empowerment and independence in someone living with disability is first ensuring that they feel stable in their support network. This involves both having a broad range of people they can call upon for help and ensuring that the people in their network are reliable. The Endeavour Foundation highlights the importance of someone with a disability feeling like they have multiple people they can count on. This means, they have people to reach out to should their primary caregiver be unavailable to assist.

A great way to help someone with disability expand their support network is by involving the immediate community and establishing a small activity that can become a part of their daily routine. For example, Natasja had a client with cerebral palsy who wanted to start taking regular trips to their local coffee shop. 

First, she helped them plan their walking route and roleplay the process of ordering a drink with her at the clinic. Then, Natasja and the client went to the coffee shop together and she encouraged them to go to the counter alone to order, while she was at a table close by if they needed support.

Following this success, the client was comfortable going to the coffee shop alone. Now, they walk to the shop most days and have become a thriving part of the community. All the staff at the coffee shop know them personally and the neighbours the client sees on the way are happy to help if there is ever a problem.

Developing independence through capacity building

Encouraging independence in a loved one with disability is a slow process, but the small changes will gradually add up, enabling them to have more freedom. The term “capacity building” refers to the process of developing the necessary skills to fulfil long-term self development goals. This process is crucial for supporting people with disabilities in fostering their own independence.

Capacity building requires establishing the knowledge base first before attempting a new task. For example, if a client wants to become more independent by being able to shop for their own groceries, they must first be confident with the necessary skills. 

When helping a client prepare for being able to buy groceries, Natasja will go over how to write a shopping list, the transport required for getting there, the layout of the shop, and money handling skills. Once the client is comfortable with these skills, she will accompany them on their first shopping trip and then they can attempt one by themselves. Gradual capacity building is a fantastic way to build confidence in people with disability. 

Building independence through acquiring skills like this is a fantastic way to cultivate confidence and self-esteem. Often a new task can seem overwhelming, so it’s great when support networks can help wherever they can. This can be as simple as double-checking a shopping list or helping check the train timetable.

Connecting through compassion

Another great way to facilitate empowerment in people living with disability is to encourage personal development. This can include anything that will build new skills and social development. Activities like classes, working, volunteering and other social endeavours are especially beneficial in the context of peer mentoring.

Often, when skills are taught by a peer with a similar disability, they are consolidated and absorbed much quicker than when taught by a medical practitioner. For example, a wheelchair user will learn chair manoeuvring skills much more efficiently from another chair user than they will from someone who can describe, but not relate to the experience. This is why it is so important for people living with disabilities to spend time with, and learn from, their peers. 

As well as learning from their peers, being integrated into the general community is just as beneficial for the community as it is for the person living with disability. From a purely disability-visibility standpoint, it is important for the community to learn that disability is not something to be scared of or avoid. 


Encouraging independence and empowerment in loved ones with disability is a fantastic way of aiding in self-esteem and confidence development. Carers can best support by helping establish a broad support network through community involvement, cultivating independence through capacity building, and encouraging loved ones with disability to connect with their peers. Humans are social beings and it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that we are including each other.