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How to Avoid 'Mixed Messages' When a Child Stares at Someone With a Disability

Yesterday, I went to collect a desk for my craft room. A little girl of about 7 was looking at me with my hand splints and walking stick. As she was looking, I smiled at her and she smiled back. I wasn’t bothered by this; it happens all the time. I’m in my late 20’s, but look younger. I’m definitely not an old lady, but I certainly walk like one.

Everything was fine, until her mother pulled the little girl away and told her off for staring. Now, I accept that it is rude to stare at other people and we should teach children not to do it. But when it comes to small children and people with disabilities, maybe we should do things a little differently.

I am someone she might never have encountered before; she might not know anyone who uses a walking stick or a wheelchair or wears splints. To this little girl, I could have been as different from her as another species of animal altogether, like at a zoo where we take children to stare at what they don’t usually see.

We generally encourage children to be inquisitive, to notice and absorb things around them. We encourage them to question and learn about the world. But when it comes to people who are different, we tell them not to look, not to ask and to stay away. Perhaps we are sending mixed messages! Maybe we are teaching them that people with disabilities are strange and to be avoided, possibly even scary or dangerous.

If something remains mysterious to children, they may find it hard to be understanding and compassionate. They might grow to become fearful of difference. If they’re not given the opportunity to ask questions, kids can’t learn that people with disabilities are just the same as them. They may remain too uncomfortable to be able to have an open discussion about a person’s limitations and what help they need, or if they even need any help at all. We might never move forward with accessibility, as the next generation find themselves unsure how to interact with people with disabilities.

Most importantly, children who have not had the opportunity to discuss, understand and  accept those around them with disabilities may grow up to become one of the many adults who stare at me as if they have never seen anything so absurd as a young person with mobility difficulties. They may become the adults who speak over me when I am in my chair, not acknowledging me. They may become the adults who ask inappropriate questions or use offensive language.

At age 12, before I was aware of my condition, my mum took me to volunteer at a sport session for people with disabilities. It was a valuable learning experience for me. I learned a lot about the vast spectrum of health needs. It normalized disability for me. I realized disability is just another strand of diversity in the human race, just like some people are female and some are male, some are heterosexual and some are gay. It’s part of what weaves the fabric of humanity.

Now that I’m on the other side,  I would much rather hear a child ask their carer about me and hear them respond with an explanation, “Some people have health problems and need a stick to help them walk.” I’d rather have that kid in the restaurant come over and ask me about my condition, or just have a little chat. Then next time they meet a person with a disability, it won’t be alien — it will be another kind of normal.

The little lady in the picture is my niece. She is 4, and she knows Auntie Annie needs a stick or chair to get about. She knows I can’t dance, but I can draw and sing and read. She understands my limitations, but she doesn’t worry about them. She just accepts me for who I am. Children’s world views are easily shaped. So please, shape them to be understanding, compassionate and tolerant.

We need to familiarize children with disability to make it normal. That way, the next generation can grow to to become more accepting than the last.

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