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4 Tips for Talking to Children About Disabilities

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Young children are curious little creatures with no filters who love to ask questions in public – which can sometimes be uncomfortable. Usually it is the parent who cringes as their child blurts out a question or comment about a person with a disability. I’ve been there myself, face turning bright red, palms sweating as my child points and asks questions.

To the adults who are embarrassed by some of the things their children may say, here are four tips I have used to talk to my children about disabilities.

1. Let them be curious. Kids are naturally curious. They ask question after question. As the mother to a 3-year-old, I’m pretty sure I hear, “Why?” over 300 times a day. When children see someone with a disability, they are going to ask questions. “Why can’t she walk? Why does he look like that? What is wrong with her?” Questions are OK. Do not get mad at your child for being curious, and do not shoo them away. Allow your child to observe. What might seem like forever to you is probably a 10-second look from your child.

2. Keep it simple. Depending on your child’s age, a simple response is typically all that is needed to satisfy their curiosity. To my 3-year-old I might say, “It looks like her legs do not work the same as yours.” To my 6-year-old I might say, “She could have been born like that, or maybe she had an injury. It looks like she needs the wheelchair to get around easier.” Usually that is all the explanation they need.

3. Follow up with the positive. Having a disability is often associated with negativity. Our society tends to view having a disability as sad. Try to find something in common with the person with the disability. Maybe they have a cool t-shirt on or are wearing a fun pair of shoes. Instead of promoting sadness, emphasize that while the world is full of differences, we also have a lot in common.

4. Lead by example. Kids pick up on everything. The way you act towards someone with a disability is how your child will act. If you act awkward or nervous, your child will see. They will hear the words you use, so be mindful to avoid negative words and avoid speaking about the disability before considering the person.

Bonus Tip: Since I am not a parenting expert by any means, I often get my best advice from the television shows I watch with my children. Disney’s “Doc McStuffins” introduced a double amputee, PBS’s “Arthur” introduced a character on the autism spectrum, and “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory” are full of unique characters who celebrate differences. Watch these programs with your child and have a conversation about the characters. This is a great time to answer questions.

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