Carola is a disability advocate with many years of experience working in the disability community. She is also a freelance writer.
Children who have not been exposed to people with disabilities in their families or their environment are naturally curious about people who appear different from them. Preschoolers who are 2 to 3 years old may not notice person’s disability unless someone points it out or the difference is obvious because of aids such as crutches, white canes, or wheelchairs.
By the age of 4, kids will notice people who are different because they do not eat, talk, or get around like other people. They may react in different ways such as staring or blurting out questions. They may even wonder and be concerned that they may become disabled themselves.
The way that parents and caregivers respond to these questions will determine how their children think of and treat people with disabilities in the future. Parents may cringe and feel uncomfortable or embarrassed when a child points to someone in a wheelchair and loudly asks:
“Why is she sitting in a chair with wheels?”
“Why does he talk funny?”
“Why does she look like that?”
"Why are those ladies moving their hands like that?"
“Why does she walk like that?”
“What is wrong with that man?”
So how do parents handle this kind of situation? Here are some suggestions.
Watch for an opening: If you see that a child has noticed someone with a disability, this may provide an opportunity to start a conversation on differences. Use clear terms such as explaining that a woman is talking in sign language because she is deaf, or a man is using a white cane or a service dog because he is blind.
Let children be curious: Your child should feel comfortable enough to explore new ideas with you. Time should be set aside to discuss relevant topics. Young children especially will pepper parents and caregivers with all kinds of questions. Parents should encourage their curiosity while teaching them to make enquiries in discreet ways.
If the children want to know more, there are books at the library or age-appropriate websites that can help explain differences.
Many kid’s TV shows these days also now have disabled characters. There may be other ways to satisfy enquiring minds, such as allowing them to sit in a wheelchair.
Keep it simple and age appropriate: Try to see the situation from your child’s perspective. Children have short attention spans and do not need long, complex answers. Be truthful but do not go into a lot of unnecessary details. Use simple language that they will understand. A very young child will be satisfied with “Maybe her legs don’t work like yours.” A child in elementary school may be told: “There are a number of reasons why he uses a wheelchair. Maybe he was born that way, or he was hurt in an accident.” If you do not know how to respond, say so.
Be matter-of-fact: Help children accept disability as a part of life by being matter-of-fact and unemotional. Point out any things that they and people with disabilities have in common. Avoid using inappropriate and politically incorrect terms such as “handicapped,” “retarded,” and “crippled.”
Listen to what children are saying: Address any fears and concerns they may have honestly. Children tend to be afraid of the unknown.
Keep the conversation positive: Disability is often associated with negative emotions such as sadness and pity. Encourage children to view a disabled individual as a person with a cool T-shirt or a good sense of humor. Put a positive spin on disability if possible such as explaining how a wheelchair enables people to get around.
Teach children to respect people with disabilities: If your child refers to a disabled person as “dumb” or say that he talks or walks funny, correct them. Explain that these words hurt.
Make sure that they understand that having a physical disability does not mean that the disabled also have a mental disability.
Be a good example: Children pick up on discomfort, embarrassment, and negative attitudes in other people. Young children can also be negatively affected by stories they read or see on TV. Encourage them to share their impressions and discuss them by saying something such as: “What do you think about…?” It is a good time to teach sensitivity and awareness of other people’s differences.
There may be times that children want to approach the disabled person directly. It may be appropriate for parents to ask something like, “My son is curious about why you are in a wheelchair. Would you mind explaining it to him?” Some people may not want to discuss the matter, but others will welcome an opportunity to educate others.
People with disabilities long to be accepted as equal human beings and do not want to be viewed as objects of pity.
They will appreciate parents who take the time to educate their children about disabilities and promote the acceptance of people with differences.
4 Tips for Talking to Children About Disabilities, The Mighty, Heather McCarthy
Explaining Disability to Children, Disabled Word, Thomas C. Weiss
How to Explain Disability to a Child, Mychildwithoutlimits.org
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on September 13, 2016:
Thanks for these important recommendations. Having worked with the population of people with disabilities, I can see how this information is beneficial not only to families, but to anyone who may encounter someone with a disability.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 11, 2016:
"Parents should encourage their curiosity while teaching them to make inquiries in discreet ways." This takes effort, but it is worth the while to make it comfortable for the disabled and the child. Thanks for all your really god suggestions.