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6 Tips For Talking With Your Child About Disabilities

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Perhaps you have experienced this:

You are having an eventful shopping trip to Target (one where you claim you are going to buy sunscreen, and $175 later…).  You have cleared out the store and are waiting patiently in the check-out line. You look into your shopping cart and see your child staring aghast at a person in a wheelchair and then loudly proclaiming, “Mommy, why is that boy drooling?”

Resist the urge to abandon your cart (and child) to crawl under the nearest clothing rack. This is a fantastic, teachable moment for you and your child!

First, and most important, it is developmentally appropriate for your child to ask this question. Children are constantly learning and observing the world around them. They have a natural curiosity about things, especially when they see something or someone unique or different.

1. Parents, it starts with you!

Before we even begin to discuss how to talk with your children about disabilities, I strongly encourage every one of you to examine your own responses to those with disabilities. From a historical perspective, it is highly likely your own exposure to those with disabilities has been rather limited. In the 1800s, individuals with disabilities were ostracized in the community and often ridiculed and mocked for entertainment purposes. Those with disabilities were largely institutionalized and segregated from the rest of the population. It wasn’t until after the Civil Rights Movement, in the 1970s, that lawmakers began to pass legislation that supported and protected individuals with disabilities. True fact:  the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was not passed until 1990 (a mere 28 years ago), which allowed individuals with disabilities access to employment opportunities and public accommodations.

It is likely that your parents have very limited knowledge or experience in talking with, seeing or understanding individuals with a disability, and as a result, you may have limited understanding as well. Also, given that individuals with disabilities were not afforded the same rights and protections as other minority groups until the 1990s, you can be certain that stigma and bias exist toward this community. It is not uncommon to experience fear and uncertainty about someone or something you do not understand. However, if you are anxious or uncomfortable around someone with a disability, your children will pick up on those feelings, even if your words are kind and respectful.

Avoidance of the unfamiliar is a common response as well. For example,  my daughter Taylor wears glasses, wears orthotics, and occasionally uses a walker. I have overheard children asking about these various devices, which (once again) is a completely typical and developmentally appropriate response from a child. I typically turn to engage the child in discussion, only to find that the parent is “shushing” the child or avoiding eye contact and steering the child away. These moments are prime opportunities to educate your child and encourage engagement with the disability community. The longer we remain silent and avoid the discussion, the longer the stigmas and biases regarding individuals with disabilities will remain. Examine yourself. Educate yourself. If you don’t know the answer, it is OK to admit this and take time to seek out an answer. Seek out new experiences to interact with those who are different from yourself.

2. Use positive language.

It is incredibly important to avoid limiting and negative language. When your child asks why my daughter has orthotics, try to use positive language. Rather than saying, “well, that child can’t walk” or, “something must be wrong with her legs,” or “her legs aren’t strong enough to walk,” try saying, “those braces help her to walk.” Glasses help others to see, wheelchairs help others to move, picture cards help others to communicate/talk, etc. Many children believe things like orthotics and wheelchairs and communicating with picture cards are “cool.” Go with it, what a perfect opportunity for you and your child to engage with someone different, learn new skills, and make new friends.

3. Talk about similarities.

Help your child understand that disability does not define an individual. Assist your child in identifying all of the ways in which your child is similar to a child with disabilities. Do you both have hair? Blue eyes? What is his favorite color? Does he like to listen to music? What is his favorite song? Do you think he has feelings? How do you think he feels when he listens to his favorite song? What do you think he likes to play?  What is his favorite toy?  These questions help identify clear similarities, as well as encourage the development of your child’s growing empathy.

4. Talk about strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s say your child comes home and talks about Susie from school, a child who is nonverbal and gets frustrated when the teachers do not understand her. Rather than saying, “Oh honey, Susie can’t help it,” or “Susie doesn’t know how to talk,” help your child to identify with Susie by discussing strengths and weaknesses. “What is Susie good at? (Oh, she likes to dance to music). After identifying those strengths ask, “What is hard for her?” (She has trouble saying words and asking for what she wants).

Now try asking your child, “What are you good at?” (coloring) “What is hard for you?” (sitting in circle time). This exercise teaches your child both empathy, understanding, and compassion for others by allowing your child to see that all individuals have strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t stop there!  Keep the dialogue going. You might expand on this by asking, “How do you think Susie feels when the teachers do not understand her? How do you feel when you have to sit in circle time?” Then help your child identify strategies to overcome these challenges. “How is Susie working to talk with her teachers? That’s right, she’s learning sign language. Are there any ways that you might be able to help Susie?” You might be shocked when your child suggests that he or she learn sign language — sign em’ up! Draw parallels with your own child’s challenges, “How are you working to sit in circle time? Great, you are putting on your listening ears! Are there any things that I/your teachers/your best friend can do to help you?” This will help your child identify strengths and resiliency in others and in himself!

5. Engage!

Let’s revisit the dreaded shopping trip to Target… set an example for your children by engaging with individuals with disabilities and their families. “I bet that wheelchair helps him get around the store. I’m not sure why he drools, but why don’t we go say, ‘hello.’” Take your child by the hand and introduce yourself and your child to the caregiver and then address the child in the wheelchair, this is important, address the child.  Always assume comprehension. A child may be nonverbal and immobile, but still understand every word coming out of your mouth. I generally suggest approaching the child like you would any other kiddo: smile, introduce yourself, compliment the child on the bow in her hair or his Paw Patrol shirt, the pattern on her orthotics or the badges on his wheelchair. “Hi Johnny! My name is Amanda and this is Taylor. I love your Thomas the Train t-shirt. We love Thomas and Percy!”

If the family begins talking with you and engages as well, feel free to continue chatting. Ask Johnny how old he is or to tell you about the cool badges on his chair. If Johnny is nonverbal, the caregiver will likely answer the questions, but it is still completely appropriate to address Johnny. If, and only if, the conversation is going well, don’t hesitate to ask the caregiver to tell you a little more about Johnny’s situation. If the caregiver is talking openly with you, they will most likely answer that question with little hesitation.

Some families may be very sensitive to strangers who approach — your effort is still appreciated. Please understand that some individuals with disabilities and their caregivers have been on the receiving end of some pretty rude and insensitive comments. If an individual or family is not reciprocating your initial conversation, wish them a good day and move on with your shopping trip. In my experience, most families who have kiddos with disabilities welcome questions from other children and particularly welcome opportunities to educate and build relationships with others, but some people may be a bit more guarded and wish to maintain a degree of privacy. Please respect this.

6. Continue the discussion.

So, your child has had an interaction with someone with a disability or the two of you have had a discussion — now what?  If your child has a classmate with a disability, continue the dialogue throughout the school year. If your child develops a relationship with that classmate, foster that relationship by encouraging play dates or study groups. Find a way to volunteer for or attend an event where you and your child will be exposed to individuals with various disabilities.

Also, do a quick sweep of your child’s home library, are there books that represent individuals with disabilities? Do you watch TV shows or movies which have characters with disabilities? If not, consider expanding your repertoire.

Visit Tough Like Taylor, where this post first published, they would love to hear from you!

Getty image by jarenwicklund

Originally published: May 8, 2019
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