Talking About Disability With Able-Bodied Children

A huge part of creating an inclusive, supporting environment for children with disabilities is making sure their peers are in the know about how disability works. My grandson, Elijah, lives with cerebral palsy, and it’s important he grows up around adults and peers who cherish him as a person, not as a pet or a project. I want everyone Elijah interacts with to be mindful of his limitations and cherish him for the fun little boy he is.

You may initially feel uncomfortable talking with a young child about a classmate in a wheelchair or a classmate with learning differences, but creating a world more receptive to people with differences starts with young people. Rather than teaching a child to ignore a person with a disability, or worse yet, treat a person with a disability condescendingly, here are some ways you can talk about disability in a way that encourages interaction and acceptance.

Address the difference.

Children are naturally curious and may stare, gawk, or point at peers who have obvious physical differences. Use the opportunity to educate on disability, not bury the topic. When children are taught to “ignore” disability, they neglect the importance of inclusion. Teach them to embrace differences, ask questions, and engage with people who are different.

Talk straight with your child.

Use names for devices and briefly sum up their purpose. For example, if your child is curious about a person with an oxygen tank, explain plainly and without emotion or speculation the person may need some extra help breathing, so they use the tank to help. Using appropriate and respectful words to describe disability will instill respect in your child. Some words are offensive, such as, “crippled,” “retarded” or “deformed.” Instead, teach words like, “different” or “disabled” to ensure acceptance rather than condescension.

Point out similarities.

Rather than dwelling on how children with disabilities are different from able-bodied children, talk about the ways all children are similar. Children like to have friends, play games, form opinions, pet puppies, watch movies and other common activities. Spending time on similarities reinforces inclusion, acceptance, and empathy. Immediately discourage bullying or jokes; children with disabilities are commonly considered “easy targets” for verbal abuse.

Point out what is hurtful.

Tell your child it would be hurtful if someone teased them for something uncontrollable — such as their hair color or name — so it’s not nice to do it to someone who has a disability. Your main thesis when discussing disability with your child should be that, no matter a child’s condition, they’re still a person who deserves respect and acceptance.

Model respect.

Taking the time to teach and model respect towards people with disabilities will help develop the same attributes in children, reduce bullying, and create an inclusive culture that benefits both able-bodied people and those with disabilities.

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