20 'Harmless' Comments Parents of Kids With Disabilities Hear
When my friend’s daughter was born with Down syndrome, I said, “I am sorry.” That was before my own child was born with Down syndrome and I knew what it was like to be the one hearing those words. I thought I was being supportive, and at the time, because I did not know any better, I thought having a child with Down syndrome would be hard.
In the last 10 years of parenting two children with disabilities, I’ve had well intentioned people who love me make comments that — although meant to be supportive — are hurtful.
I worry when some of those comments are made in front of my children. I don’t want them to see their disability as something “bad” rather than one of the many things that makes them who they are as wonderful and unique individuals.
I do believe most people are trying to be supportive, but when you hear these “harmless” comments over and over, it begins to feel demoralizing.
We reached out to our Mighty parents and asked, “What are ‘harmless’ comments people make to you about parenting your child with a disability (or about your child) that hurt or make you feel defeated?”
These were their responses.
1. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
Another version of this is, “God gives special children to special parents.”
Without getting into theology, this statement is not true, and it’s not Biblical. These comments come across as platitudes, and they invalidate the challenges we have to face parenting children with disabilities. We are ordinary, every day, just like you people.
2. “Have you tried ____?”
We get it, people want to help. There are supplements and essential oils and therapies and diets and all sorts of things out there. Trust me when I say, if it is an option, most likely we have heard about it, researched it or even tried it already. The issues our kids face are not for a lack of trying.
3. “But she’s so beautiful!”
Yes, my child is beautiful. Disability really has nothing to do with it. This suggests people with disabilities are unattractive because they are disabled, or worse, it promotes the idea that good looks are “wasted” on someone with a disability. That type of thinking is harmful and hurtful.
4. “As long as my baby is healthy.”
There is nothing wrong in wishing for a child to have good health. I believe most of us parents agree we wish our kids did not have to deal with illnesses. But often, those comments refer to disability, too. As parents of kids with disabilities, those comments can translate into, “for as long as my baby is not like yours.” It hurts.
“It makes me feel like my daughter is so undesirable that the last thing anyone wants is a child like her,” reader Ashlea M. explained.
5. “I couldn’t do what you do.”
Other versions of this include, “I don’t know how you do it” and “what a burden.”
If you love your kids (and most parents do), then yes, yes you could. It’s really that simple. We are the you you would be if this was your child. And sometimes we don’t know how we do it either because parenting is the hardest job on earth, but we do it anyway because we love our kids. And our kids are never, ever a burden to us. They are precious gifts to us.
6. “What’s wrong with her?”
I get that people are trying to understand a child’s disability, but it’s a poor choice of words. Disability is not “wrong.” And please, don’t ask this in front of my child, who is hearing she is “wrong” for having a disability. Nothing is wrong. She has a disability.
7. “What’s his life expectancy?”
I don’t know what to make of this question. What’s its purpose? Yes, there are children with terminal conditions, but this is a situation where it is up to the parent to share such personal details.
“Some things are just plain rude,” reader Christa H. wrote. “My least favorite in the world is, ‘So what is their life expectancy like?’ or ‘Did the doctor say how long they’d live?’ You’d assume people would have the good sense not to ask such a thing (perfectly normal curiosity to have, totally unacceptable to actually bring it up at a dinner party), but sometimes they just don’t.”
8. “He looks ‘normal.’”
It’s not a compliment to say my child does not look like she has a disability. She does. And what exactly does “normal” look like?
9. “Have you tried this particular method of discipline?”
Yes, sometimes kids misbehave, but a child with disabilities most likely is feeling overwhelmed by their senses or is unable to control their feelings. They do not always need discipline but rather understanding and help so they can get regulated.
10. “I’m so sorry.”
About what exactly? “I’m so sorry,” communicates pity. We are not sorry about our kids. We love them, and we are so proud of them. We get to be direct witnesses of their lives, and wow… we get to see firsthand they are pretty amazing.
11. “Couldn’t you just _____.”
Actually, no. I could not just force my child to eat a food she cannot tolerate due to texture. I could not just send my child to a summer program without first making sure the place is ready to care for her appropriately. I could not “just” anything when it comes to my child.
12. “At least you don’t have to _____.”
Please stop. Don’t say, “At least you don’t have to deal with a child talking you ear off,” to a mom of a nonverbal child or a child who struggles with speech. Don’t say, “At least you don’t have to chase your kid around all the time,” to the mom of a child with mobility issues. It’s an inappropriate comment.
13. “You just have to pray.”
I get the intentions, and I happen to be a spiritual person who believes in the power of prayer. Here is the thing: my kids do not need to be “healed” from their disability. Instead, pray you will understand disability and recognize every life is valuable.
14. “We don’t believe in medicating our kids.”
Parents who give medicine to their kids do so because their children need it. It is hard to understand what you do not live. Some kids need medication, whether it is for seizures, ADHD, anxiety or heart conditions. For many kids, medication improves the quality of their life. So let’s stop making comments that pass judgment.
15. “It is your cross to bear.”
My child is not a punishment to be equated to a “cross to bear.” Kids with disabilities are children first. Any extra challenges that come with their condition are not punishments inflicted unto our families. A challenge is a challenge, not some mystical life-sentence.
16. “Maybe he will grow out of it.”
I know kids grow out of things, but disability is often permanent. When you are on the autism spectrum, you are neurodiverse for life. When you have Down syndrome, you have it for life. When you have spina bifida, you have it for life.
17. “Did you know before they were born?”
The suggestion behind that question is that a person with a disability would be better off dead — an ideology the disability community fights constantly. The lives of people with disabilities are just as valuable as the lives of people without disabilities. And ultimately, does it matter if there was a prenatal diagnosis or not?
18. “I cannot believe he can do ….”
I understand some things can be more difficult for some kids with disabilities, but our kids with disabilities can accomplish many great things.
“Our son began reading at an early age. By ,3 he could read a pile of sight words. We used sign language early on (assuming that his language would be delayed) and with it, sight words and picture cards,” reader Lianna L. wrote. “He was a great reader when he started Junior Kindergarten… and when an adult — friend, teacher, neighbor — would realize he was reading, the idea seemed shocking to them. I have always felt uncomfortable in this type of situation because I feel like I have to justify his ability and validate their surprise.”
19. “All kids with _____ are always so _____.”
Generalizations, especially those based on stereotypes, are inappropriate.
“‘People with Down syndrome are always so happy.’ I don’t get upset about most of the things people say out of ignorance, but for some reason this one really bothers me,” reader Stacey B. wrote. “As if they aren’t intelligent enough to have other emotions? My son is definitely not happy all of the time! When he is happy, he absolutely beams, but this occurs no more than it does for our typical daughter!”
20. “Is she doing _____ yet?”
Does it really matter when a child starts to walk or talk? Will it make a difference in how you see them? Are kids with disabilities more acceptable the more they can do? The more they are like their typical peers? This question indirectly focuses on a child’s weakness as it is based on ability.
What other “harmless” comments have been said to you? Let us know in the comments.