Whether it’s a classmate who has autism or a loved one who uses a wheelchair, your child probably has someone in their life who looks, talks, acts, or moves a little bit differently. The great thing about kids? They are not afraid to ask questions. The tough thing about kids? These questions are often blunt, piercingly to the point and can leave parents embarrassed and unsure of how to answer.
Knowing how to talk to your child about disabilities can feel like a minefield. We get so worried about getting it wrong, we sometimes don’t say anything at all. But our kids are learning about the world long before they start talking about it and it’s our duty as parents to make sure they treat anyone the meet with respect and dignity – so it’s our responsibility to do the work and answer their questions with the same qualities. One of the best things about kids pointing out differences between them and other people is that it gives us an opportunity to educate them and ourselves, while celebrating the brilliantly diverse world we live in. So how do we tackle talking to kids about disabilities?
Keep it simple
Creating a culture of acceptance and recognition of diversity within your household goes a really long way to helping kids learn about disabilities and other differences. Before questions are even asked, we can introduce our children to positive images of disability through the books we read together, the people they watch on TV (think Cbeebies alumnus Cerrie Burnell) and in movies, and the toys they play with. This means that when questions like “why is that boy in a wheelchair?” come, it doesn’t feel like a taboo, and as parents, we’re able to respond promptly without information overload.
When we’re asked questions like this, it’s important not to run down all the possible reasons why the boy in question might be in a wheelchair, but respond with the simplest answer: “because his legs work differently to ours so he uses a wheelchair” is usually enough. Avoid hushed tones and awkward asides and if you don’t know the answer, be honest. It’s also important to avoid platitudes like “Aren’t they brave?” or “Don’t stare” because these can perpetuate the idea that disability is something to be avoided or can “other” people with disabilities, making them feel abnormal, unusual or less than.
If you’re looking to begin talking to children about disabilities before they start asking questions, there are a few things it can be worth talking about:
Some people are born with disabilities but some people develop them in later life. You can explain that sometimes, babies are born with disabilities but at other times accidents or illnesses can lead to people developing disabilities.
People with disabilities aren’t sick. It’s really important to make it clear to your child that they can’t “catch” a disability in the same way they might catch a cold or the flu. Explain that a child or person with cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy isn’t sick – they’re just different.
There’s nothing wrong with people with disabilities. Words matter and language is really important. One of the big questions kids ask is “what’s wrong with that girl?” and we should explain that while someone may have trouble talking or difficulty walking, that doesn’t mean there’s something “wrong” with them.
A physical disability doesn’t mean someone has a cognitive disability. Sometimes kids make connections between the body and the brain and assume that those with a physical disability must have difficulty communicating or might not be clever. When you’re discussing disabilities, make it clear that just because someone’s body doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean their brain is impaired.
Using respectful terminology is always important, but especially around the sponges that are kids. Making sure that you’re a good role model in this area is crucial because if you use outdated language, your kids will mimic what they learn from you. Avoid using derogatory terms like “cripple” instead focusing on using positive, person-first language such as “person with a disability” not “disabled person” and remove the word “retard” from your vocabulary.
According to r-word.org, “‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ have been used widely in today’s society to degrade and insult people with intellectual disabilities. Additionally, when ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ are used as synonyms for ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ by people without disabilities, it only reinforces painful stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities being less valued members of humanity.”
Different isn’t bad
People with disabilities are different and that isn’t a bad thing. Pretending differences aren’t there devalues the experiences of people with disabilities and can be really confusing for children who are trying to learn more about the world. Make it clear that disability is a normal part of the human experience by talking about it in a matter-of-fact way. Disability isn’t frightening or sad, it is just another part of our diverse world.
While there may be differences, there are still many ways that we are the same and articulating this to our kids is really important. A child in a wheelchair may still love Peppa Pig or playing catch. A child may have speech difficulties, but talk using a computer and may still love to chat. An person who uses walking aids may not be as fast as young children, but they might still enjoy going to the park. If there is a child with disabilities in your child’s class, encourage them to discover any commonalities and explore them together. In the words of Jo Cox, we have “more in common than that which divides us”.
Much like conversations around race and LGBTQ+ identity, these conversations should be ongoing. Conversations might start when kids are very young and explore how everyone has differences but that these can and should be celebrated, then get more complex and nuanced, exploring the social justice side of disability as kids get older.
Most adults with disabilities understand that the curiosity of young children has no filter and many won’t be offended by direct questioning and will answer questions if they’re asked respectfully. That curiosity should never be shamed because it encourages open dialogue and reduces stigma. What’s most important is the way we as parents deal with these questions. As with most things when it comes to teaching kids, it’s about treating people with respect and teaching your kids to do the same. Your children will see how you interact with people who are disabled and emulate that behaviour.
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