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. Books such as Just Ask! by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor can help parents and caregivers explore differences in a positive way.
Preschoolers who are 2 to 3 years old may not notice a 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 from them because these individuals do not eat, talk, or get around like other people. Children may react in various ways such as staring or blurting out questions. They may even be concerned that they may become disabled themselves.
The way that we respond to these questions can determine how their children think of and treat people with disabilities in the future. We may cringe and feel uncomfortable and embarrassed at first when children point 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?”
Tips on Talking to Children about People with Disabilities
So how do we parents handle this situation? Here are some suggestions.
Watch For an Opening
If we see that our children have noticed someone with a disability, this may provide an opportunity to start a conversation on differences. We should 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
We should set aside to discuss relevant topics. Young children will pepper us with all kinds of questions. We should encourage their curiosity while teaching them to ask questions in discreet ways.
If the children want to know more, library books about conditions such as autism, hearing loss, blindness, and other cognitive or physical disabilities are a good place to start creating conversations. There are age-appropriate websites that can also help explain differences. YouTube has many read-aloud videos. Many kids’ TV shows these days now have disabled characters. There may be other ways to satisfy inquiring minds, such as Grandma allowing her grandkids to sit in her wheelchair when she is not using it.
Keep It Simple and Age-Appropriate
We should try to see the situation from your child’s perspective. We can be truthful but not go into a lot of unnecessary details. Children have short attention spans and do not need long complex answers. They will understand more if we use simple language.
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 several reasons why he uses a wheelchair. Maybe he was born that way, became sick, or was hurt in an accident.” If you do not know how to respond, say so and then investigate the topic further together.
Help children accept disability as a part of life by being matter-of-fact and unemotional. Any things that they and people with disabilities have in common can be pointed out. Inappropriate and politically incorrect terms such as “handicapped,” “retarded,” and “crippled” should be avoided. We should promote the inclusion of disabled people when possible.
We need to explain any boundaries that need to be respected in an age-appropriate way. For example, we can teach kids that service dogs are working and should not be distracted or petted.
Listening To What Children Are Saying
We should address any fears and concerns our children may have honestly. Children tend to be afraid of the unknown. We can watch for signs of anxiety and reassure them that everything is OK.
Keeping The Conversation Positive
Disability is often associated with negative emotions such as sadness and pity. We should encourage children to view a disabled individual as a person with characteristics such as a cool T-shirt or a good sense of humor. A positive spin on disability should be communicated such as explaining how a wheelchair enables people to get around.
Teaching Children to Respect People with Disabilities
If children refer to a disabled person as “dumb” or say that he talks or walks "funny," we need to correct them, explaining that these words hurt. We should make sure that they understand that having a physical disability does not mean that people also have a mental disability. Kids need to know that some terms for people with cognitive difficulties are not acceptable such as “retarded.”
Disability should be considered a neutral and a different type of “normal.” We can often point out people who their children know who have physical or mental differences.
Setting 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. We can 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 us 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.
The New York Times best-selling book Wonder by author R. J. Palacio and the movie on which it is based are suitable for older kids. Wonder follows the life of an adolescent with a facial difference. There are numerous children’s books on specific conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, deafness, or Down Syndrome.
People with disabilities long to be accepted as equal human beings and do not want to be viewed as objects of pity or be put on a pedestal as “inspirational.” They 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
Meaningful Ways To Teach Your Child About Disabilities, CBC, Dyan Robson
How To Talk To Your Kid About Disabilities, Huffpost, Caroline Bologna
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.
© 2016 Carola Finch
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.