Talking to kids about disabilities is something that every parent eventually confronts, usually when out in public with a young child. If you’re a parent, you know how it is. It’s that moment when your child points at a disabled person and loudly says, “Mommy, why does that person walk funny?”
Yes. It’s embarrassing to you as an adult. The reason it embarrasses you is because you’ve developed empathy for those who have differences. You understand that pointing at people is rude and puts them in an uncomfortable spotlight, not to mention having the way they walk or look described loudly and publicly as, for instance, “funny.”
But children mean no harm when they do and say such things. It’s just that they haven’t yet developed empathy. As parents, it’s good to think that such embarrassing moments present for a good reason: to prod us to teach our children to step outside their narrow, me-centered worlds to think what it might feel like to be someone else.
Talking To Kids About Disabilities
Of course, it helps if you’re prepared when that embarrassing moment arrives. You’ll want to know what to say. Here are six tips to help you along in talking to kids about disabilities:
1. It’s Okay to Be Curious
Children have a natural curiosity that eggs them on to learn about the world they live in. That’s why, when they see a person with a disability, they’re going to ask questions about what they see. Some children might not be able to frame a question but will stand and stare, transfixed, at a person with a disability. Take the lead and offer a short, matter-of-fact description. The reason you want to be casual and factual is to show your child that a disability is not something shameful: “The lady is wearing hearing aids. Her ears work differently than yours. The hearing aids help her to hear.”
2. Use Respectful Words
When talking to kids about disabilities it’s important to use the right terminology. Children are always watching and listening, so we need to be careful with our speech. For instance, it’s important to make a distinction between the disability and the person who lives with it. It’s better, for instance, to speak of someone as “having autism” or being “on the autism spectrum” as opposed to saying, “He’s autistic.”
If you’re not sure of the proper terminology to describe a disability, Mobility International USA has a helpful tip sheet.
Unfortunately, kids also pick up on what they hear from their friends. If you hear your child using a derogatory term for a person with a disability, for instance, “Retard,” firmly correct your child, explaining that the term is hurtful. You might say, “How would you feel if you had an intellectual disability and someone called you a retard?”
This is exactly what teaching empathy is all about: getting your child to wear someone else’s shoes to imagine how that person feels.
3. Point Out Similarities
To your child, other people, and especially people with disabilities, sometimes seem not quite real. When talking to kids about disabilities, use the opportunity to emphasize all the ways in which those with disabilities are exactly like your child. This makes the person with a disability real to your child. Once the person feels real—a person with feelings, for instance—your child will be better able to imagine what it is like to be that person. That ability to imagine another’s feelings is the pathway to developing empathy.
You might, for instance, point out that a child with Down syndrome loves her puppy, loves to wear purple, and loves to listen to music, “Just like you!”
The idea here is to show your child that the person with a disability is not the disability, but a person much like other people, with feelings, likes, and dislikes.
4. Emphasize Strengths
Children notice differences. It’s up to a parent to direct the child to look for strengths instead of weaknesses. For example, if your child goes to school with a child who wears leg braces, he might point out that, “Gregory can’t walk well.”
When your child says something like this, it’s a chance for you to educate your child in emphasizing strengths, not weakness. You might say, “What is Gregory good at?” and discover that Gregory is an absolute wiz at math. It’s important that your child learn to see Gregory’s worth and what he can do, which is so much more important than what Gregory cannot do.
You might also use the opportunity to encourage your child to be helpful to others, in a respectful way, with the things that are difficult for them. It can be helpful to remind your child that when she has difficulties with certain things, it makes her feel good when others lend her a helping hand. By the same token, helping others makes them feel good, too.
5. Bullying Is Wrong Full Stop!
Because children with disabilities may look or act different from their peers, they become easy prey for bullying by other children. When talking to kids about disabilities, you’ll want to address cruelty and why hurting another person’s feelings on purpose is always wrong. If your child hurts another child’s feelings, teach her to apologize. Ask her how she would feel if someone said something or did something like that to her. Let her know that all people have feelings and all people deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.
Make sure your child understands that no bullying is an absolute rule—that even if her friends are doing it, she must not join in.
6. Medical Devices Are Not Toys
It’s natural for kids to find creative uses for items with which they are unfamiliar. For instance, a child without a disability may yearn to ride around in another child’s wheelchair. It’s important to teach children respect for medical devices and not to think of them as playthings. You might say, “We don’t play with medical devices. That wheelchair is for Jimmy what your legs are for you.”
Now that you’ve got all this mental preparation under your belt, you should be up to the challenge of talking to kids about disabilities. The main things to remember? Children don’t start out cruel or kind. It’s up to parents to teach them how to empathize by imagining others’ feelings. It’s our job to show children how to be respectful and to focus on others’ strengths instead of their weaknesses.
Do you have a tip for talking to kids about disabilities? Share it with other parents by writing it in the comments section, below.