Talking to Kids About Disabilities
At some point, your child is likely to meet someone at school or in the community who has disabilities. It’s normal for children to have questions about people who are different, and parents should be prepared to answer their questions in an intelligent and appropriate way. Here are some tips to get the conversation started.
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Everyone is different, but the same
All of us have unique gifts, personalities, and challenges. No two people are the same; diversity makes life interesting. While we’re all different, everyone has things in common too. Everyone, including people with disabilities, wants to have friends, be respected, and be accepted. Encourage your child to embrace the differences in others and find common ground. If your child is interested in a popular television show, book, toy or game; chances are a person with special needs is too. Ask them what they love to do; they’ll probably be happy to tell you.
Types of disabilities
Some disabilities are obvious and some are not. Some people may need a walker or wheelchair to help them move around. Others may have a cognitive (thinking) disability that is not as visible. Explain in simple terms that people struggle with different things and may need a little extra help. People can have impairments with sight, hearing, walking, speech, cognitive or a variety of other things. It is important to note that just because someone is in a wheelchair, it doesn’t mean they have a cognitive disability. Also, disabilities are not contagious and children are not going to “catch” the disability. This may sound obvious to adults, but children process things differently and many have these questions.
Name calling is never OK
Emphasize that people with disabilities have feelings too. Name calling is hurtful, disrespectful and is a form of bullying. People with disabilities need others to stand up for them when they cannot stand up for themselves. Encourage your child to tell an adult if kids are teasing another child. He can be an example to others by being kind and respectful. Parents can set an example by using positive language and behavior towards others, as well.
A note about “rude” comments
Kids are curious and love to ask questions. Many times they will speak exactly what is on their mind, without thinking about whether the comments will be hurtful. So what do you do if your child blurts out a rude or embarrassing comment? Start by answering in a matter-of-fact way. If he says, “Why is that boy in a wheelchair?” you can simply answer, “He needs it to move around. Why don’t you say hello?” If the child is reluctant, say hello to him yourself along with something like “John likes trains. Do you like trains too?” If the person accompanying the child responds, follow their lead. It is always better to treat others as you would like to be treated than to hurry away in an embarrassing situation. Later, at home, you can ask your child if they have more questions about people with disabilities, and reinforce the value of treating everyone equally.
“It’s just the way I am.”
“Why do you talk like that?” I heard the question come from behind me as I helped another child in the Sunday school class. “It’s just the way I am,” I heard my sister-in-law wisely answer the curious boy. Kara, who was born with cerebral palsy, was helping me in the classroom when one of the kids noticed her speech is different. She has learned to answer, “It’s just the way I am,” after years of questions about her differences. Our kids have grown up around their beloved Aunt Kara and accept her as she is, but there came a time when each of them asked about Kara’s disability and why it makes her different. Now 38 years old, Kara has been asked many questions over the years, some rude and some curious. She has learned to handle them because she knows that, just like anyone else, she has challenges to overcome and successes to celebrate. Kara loves movies, dancing and animals. She loves candy, pizza and tacos. She is fun to be around and loves to get out and explore new places. People with disabilities are just people. Sometimes that simple fact is all kids need to know.
– Sarah Lyons