How can I help parents explain my disease to their children?
This is kind of a tricky question, because as human beings we’re often fearful of things we don’t understand. Even more as a parent, how do you explain something you yourself know nothing about to your child? Your explanation may change their view on the world and even how they experience life as an adult.
Most of the time I’ve seen one of these four reactions to my wheelchair… One, someone will make eye contact with me and then swiftly turn their head away. Two, the too-big smile and stare. Three, the stop in their tracks and furrowed brow. The fourth, the reaction of children is personally my favorite. Babies are the best; they just smile, no questions asked, no explanation needed. A small child is still innocent, curious as to why I’m in a wheelchair or may never have seen one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “Mommy, what’s that?” or “Why’s she in that?” You’ve never seen a parent get out of an aisle so quickly. I understand, though; they don’t know what my reaction will be. Will I be offended? Or be nice about it and give a simple explanation? Or will I be outraged at the very question? Maybe they’re just embarrassed that their child is even asking such a question. Mostly I think they are unconsciously protecting their child. I’m a parent too; I get it.
Remember, our children take cues from us. So if we are nervous or rigid about something, our children will also be apprehensive about it. If we’re calm and assertive, so are they. So when meeting someone with a disability, try to see them as you do any other person who just happens to be rolling by you instead of walking. And if your child does have questions, you could simply say “Hi, I’m sorry to bother you but my son/daughter would like to ask you a question.” I don’t think that would upset me at all. Most of the time, a simple answer will do. An “Oh, my legs are so tired and this is how I get around,” is enough for some of them. I’ve always tried to make it age-appropriate, of course.
Once in the checkout line, a little boy maybe 3-4 was intrigued by my buttons, and his mama was so busy putting her groceries up on the checkout counter that she didn’t even notice him inching his way over to me. In slow motion he made his way to the control panel on my chair. It was hilarious seeing his tiny finger outreached, itching to know what it would do if he could only push it! I just slowly turned the chair off before he got to it and was trying to come up with a cool explanation for him. Right before I was able to explain, she grabbed his little hand, scolded him and apologized repeatedly. I couldn’t help but to laugh, and tell her it was fine and I thought it was adorable.
My advice would be to just let your children ask questions; it’s the only way we learn anything. Most of the time the parents are just as curious but society has taught them to not ask questions, that it’s rude. I don’t believe that. We should teach our children it’s OK to ask questions, to be politely curious about the world around them. We are helping them in the long run. By stopping them from doing so, you are scaring them or making them assume there is something to be frightened about. Maybe if we allow them this natural instinct to be curious and allow them to be accepting of different types of people, they won’t grow up to be judgmental or closed-minded adults.
If you happen to be home or somewhere you can have an actual conversation with your little one, maybe try this. Get them to grab/think of a few of their favorite toys. Let’s say a doll, some finger paint, or a bike. Your child loves all these toys, right? But you can’t paint with a doll. Can you brush your bike’s hair or feed it? And only your bike can race. But you still play with all of them, and they’re all different. They all look different and do different things, but you still value them.
What a dull world this would be if everyone looked the same and talked the same or wore the same clothes. Explain to them that the world is full of different kinds of people, and we all look different on the outside but we should learn to look at people’s hearts and judge based on a person’s character, not their appearance. The world would be a better place for it.
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Thinkstock photo by Amana Images.