My husband and I are both wheelchair users. We've had our share of awkward moments with others.
Have you ever been in that uncomfortable situation with your child or a friend’s child or witnessed a child asking about someone with a disability in public when you or their guardian haven’t known how to answer? Interactions with people with disabilities don’t have to be uncomfortable! Check out some ways to answer common questions children naturally ask about disability so you can turn a potentially uncomfortable situation into a learning opportunity for the child next time you meet someone with a disability.
What’s wrong with him/her?
Kids are naturally curious about the differences they observe in their world. This is usually the first question a child will ask when they see someone with a disability in public, especially if it’s one of the first times they have ever had an encounter with someone who is differently abled.
When children are young, it’s the perfect time to take advantage of teachable moments, including how to teach children the correct way to refer to disabilities. Just because someone is different, does not mean there is something “wrong” with them. It’s important to let curious children know that.
Next time, your child asks “what’s wrong with him/her,” try bending down to their level and acknowledge their observation.
“That man uses a wheelchair to help him walk.
Some of us get around differently. You and I use our legs to move around and he uses a wheelchair to help him get where he wants to go.
His red wheels are kind of neat, huh?”
By acknowledging the child’s question instead of ignoring it, you can help explain why the man in this case looks different from most people the child is used to seeing and how his wheelchair helps him. Adding something positive or remarking about an eye-catching characteristic of this man’s chair (his red wheels) helps the child see that disability isn’t something to be characterized as “wrong.”
Why is he/she in a wheelchair?
This is likely the next question many young children will ask after “what’s wrong?” They are naturally curious why someone else uses or needs a wheelchair when they do not.
It’s ok if you don’t have all the answers. Be honest with your child. Try answering with something like the following:
“I don’t know. Some people use wheelchairs for different reasons because their bodies are different than yours. They need their wheelchair to help them get where they need to go.”
Acknowledge the child’s observation of noticing something different. Keep the conversation positive and stick to the facts – even if you don’t know all of them, it’s ok to let them know. Keeping it simple about what their wheelchair does for the person the child is observing (helps them get where they need to go) will still answer their question without getting too deep for the child to understand.
Why can’t he/she walk?
If the child sees someone using a wheelchair, crutches, a walker, or other mobility equipment they may have never seen before, the best way to address their question is to acknowledge that everyone is different.
“Yes, he/she walks/moves different than we do. See how he holds onto his walker? It lets him hang on tight so he can walk without falling.”
“Her crutches help her move her legs. Her legs are not as strong as yours so she uses her crutches to help her walk around.”
Keep things simple while still addressing the child’s question. Usually once a child’s question is answered, they will be satisfied, accept it, and move on.
If you are within ear shot of the person with the disability that the child is asking about, don’t ignore the individual with the disability. Engage with them in the conversation and talk to them rather than about them. Most people with disabilities get questions like these all the time and aren’t afraid to help answer a curious child. Try engaging with the person with the disability by introducing yourself,
“Hi – how are you? What’s your name?
Nice to meet you (use person with disability’s name). This is my child (use child’s name).
It’s been nice to meet you.”
Can he/she drive?
As a person with a disability, questions like this are more common than you think. If your child has limited exposure to people with disabilities, they will be curious about how they do things differently than their parents, family, and friends.
Other examples of questions children often ask about a person’s daily routine might be, “Can he/she drive? Does he/she work? Can they go to the park?”
If you are with your child when they see the person with a disability getting in or out of their car, children may be most curious about how that person drives (or does other activities in the environment the child is observing them in).
A good way to address their question is with an answer like:
“They drive their car to get to different places just like mommy does. Their car looks a little bit different inside so they can use it.”
Is he/she a daddy/mommy?
Most small children identify all adults as “mommies” or “daddies.” When they see someone with a disability, especially someone whose disability may result in short stature or needing to use a wheelchair, it can be difficult for children to judge their age. This can cause confusion in the child’s mind as to how old the person with a disability is.
If the person with a disability is with their husband or children, the answer to this one is easy – yes! But if you’re not sure if the children the person with the disability is with belongs to them or they are alone, a good answer is:
“She might be a mommy. She is here by herself, but she might have a little girl/boy at home, just like you!”
Of course, if the person with the disability is within ear shot, or the child asks them the question directly, try introducing yourself and saying something like,
“My daughter/son is interested if you have any children like her/him?”
Most people with disabilities won’t mind answering yes or no.
Why doesn’t he/she look like me?
This is a common question that could result from children seeing someone with a temporary cast on their foot, to a permanent wheelchair user, to someone with dwarfism. Commenting on someone’s physical appearance could easily turn awkward, but it doesn’t have to!
Explain in your answer that we’re all born differently.
“We are all born differently.
Some of us have red hair like me and some of us have blond hair like you.
Some people are short and some people are tall (when addressing a question about someone with dwarfism);
Some people use wheelchairs to go around and some of us walk (when addressing a question about a wheelchair user)”
It’s important to avoid comparing people with disabilities to the “norm.” Keep the focus on valuing our differences and qualities that make us unique (red hair, brown hair, tall, short, etc.) rather than what is “normal.”
Tips for Answering Common Questions Children Ask About Disability
Excluding the person with the disability that the child is curious about.
Engage with the person with the disability that the child is curious about.
Asking the person with the disability excessive, personal questions.
Once the child’s question has been addressed, politely tell your child to say good bye and nice to meet you.
Making up answers.
If you don’t know the answer to a child’s question, it’s ok. Be honest and tell them you don’t know. Fill in the gaps with what you do know.
Talking about “normal” vs. “not normal”
Use words like “different” or “unique”
Pulling your child away, dismissing their questions, or quieting them.
Get down to your child’s level to answer their question as honestly as you can.
Have you ever turned a potentially awkward situation with a child’s inquisitiveness into a teachable moment about disability? Have you experienced a meaningful interaction with someone with a disability thanks to your child sparking up conversation? Share your experience in the comments.
WheelerWife (author) from Minnesota on August 11, 2014:
That's such a great approach, Denise. Thanks for sharing your experience.
Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on August 11, 2014:
Children are naturally curious, and I have seen people get embarrassed when their children ask these types of questions. Since we had a large family, we encountered this type of thing frequently. As suggested here, we did our best to answer the questions presented as simply as possible, and helped the children learn to be polite in the presence of others who may be different. They learned a healthy respect for other's differences, and it helped when one of our own was in that position.
Kari on August 07, 2014:
So many people ignore the question, which gives the kid a sense of 'this is wrong or bad'. I really like this hub's approach to the topic, which comes up often. I always try to let the kid's in my life know that different does not mean better or worse - I think kids (and our future) are better off to understand that.