As the School Year Begins, Please Talk to Your Kids About Disabilities

Dear Parents,

School is beginning after a nice relaxing summer break. I hope you had fun with your children and they are prepared to go back to school. As you sit down to discuss topics like manners, school etiquette and homework policies, please add disability awareness and being open to friendships with children who have disabilities. I am asking you to do this as a special education teacher and as someone who has cerebral palsy.

Parents often prepare their child on how to handle strangers, using their manners, what to do if being bullied and how to be a good student. However, children are rarely taught how to be open to disabilities and that it’s OK to become friends with someone no matter who they are or what disability they might have.

You might believe your child would never leave another child out or tease someone. I’m here to tell you that your child isn’t bad for doing these things; they are just not prepared to deal with peer pressure to make fun of someone who is different. They might feel you would even think less of them if they choose to be friends with someone who is different. Communication is so important.

Children learn by example, and they are always observing what their parents are doing. Too often as I am out and about, parents yell at their child for being too close to my wheelchair or acting as if I’m going to run over their child. No one in a wheelchair purposely sets out to run down children. These behaviors teach children that people who use wheelchairs are to be alone and avoided. It says that people who use wheelchairs are scary. Please stop doing this. If your child is in our way, we will go around them like anyone else. Let them talk and ask people with disabilities questions. Show them it’s completely normal to interact with someone who has a disability.

Discussing disabilities is crucial with your children. Inclusion is more and more prevalent in classrooms, so it’s highly likely your children will encounter someone who has a disability. They might have a teacher with disability as well. They need to know that people who have disabilities are not special. They are the same as anyone else, but they have a disability they adapt to. You need to tell them it’s OK to be friends with them, but never OK to tease, bully, or leave them out of a group.

When having a birthday party, please do not forget to invite everyone, even the child who has a disability. My feelings were deeply hurt when my peers would happily talk about birthday parties they had attended over the weekend — parties I never got invited to. I knew it was because I had cerebral palsy.

I cannot stress enough how important communication is with your children about accepting differences. It is never OK to tease someone for things they have no control over such as walking, speech, moving and even learning. It is not OK to be against someone because they’re different. If others are teasing someone, they don’t need to participate. Stick up for the ones they’re teasing.  Treat people with respect and the way you want to be treated.

Thank you for reading, and I wish every student a happy school year.

Getty image by IR Stone.

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