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Talking to Your Kids About Disabilities
“What’s wrong with that person?”
Have you ever heard this question (or a variant) come out of your child’s mouth? How do you respond? Do you tell them it’s rude to stare or hurry them along out of sight/earshot of the person they were asking about? You might be trying to save yourself some embarrassment and awkwardness at the hands of your child, but what you are actually doing is alienating the person with a disability.
However well-meaning, teaching your children to avoid people with disabilities doesn’t help to create a world that is more understanding and accepting. In order for this kind of world to exist, parents need to spend time talking to their kids about disabilities and helping them understand. By normalizing disabilities, we can open doors for relationships and connections that were previously closed because of fear and stigma.
However, finding the right time and the right words to talk to your child can be challenging. Here are some tips you can use when starting the discussion about disabilities with your child.
1: Just start!
If you’ve never had a conversation about disabilities with your child, the time to do it is now. Even if you are uncertain how to broach the topic, it’s better the conversation is started by you than other children or adults who may not have the best approach.
Children model their behaviour after what they see. Make sure your child is learning how to treat and talk to people with disabilities from you, not other disrespectful or ignorant people.
2: Teach them that being disabled isn’t wrong.
The earlier you can start this the better. People are different; and not being able to walk, talk, or interact the same as others doesn’t make a person wrong, defective, or bad.
You can tell your children that differences are normal but then encourage them to find the things that are also the same. Do they have hands, hair, or eyes like your child? How about dreams, or a desire to play? What about feelings? Or interests? Encourage your child to look past the outside of a person, and to think about the ways your child can connect with that person over shared interests.
Talk about disabilities in a positive way. Let your child know that many disabilities happen at birth, are hereditary, or are a result of an accident — but they are no one’s fault (and that you can’t catch a disability).
3: Encourage discussion.
When you start dialoguing with your child about disabilities, they will have questions. Encourage this. It’s OK to be curious.
Additionally, it’s ok if they have questions while out and about. For example, if you see a disabled child in the supermarket and you don’t know the answer to your child’s question, have your kid ask the child or caregiver! It’s much kinder to ask a direct question than to stare, or whisper about them.
Most people are happy to answer questions and bring awareness to their disability. It’s all about how you approach the conversation, try not to use words like “sick” or “wrong” when talking about people with disabilities.
4: Don’t just tell, show as well.
How you react to and treat people with disabilities sends a stronger message than your words ever will.
If they see that you are afraid to interact with people with disabilities, they too will be afraid. If they see that you are uncomfortable when they ask questions, they will stop asking questions. It’s completely natural for kids to ask questions about things they aren’t familiar with.
Instead of running when your kids ask a question that makes you feel uncomfortable, keep your composure and answer their question in a nurturing way — that will not upset your child, or the child with the disability — as best as you can.
5: Foster friendships.
Kids with disabilities are still kids.
Within reason, give your child opportunities to develop friendships with kids who have disabilities. Even if that disability prevents a kid from talking, there are still activities the children can do together like arts and crafts, or board games, or even video games.
The more time they can spend with kids who have disabilities, the easier it will be for them to see them as people first.
6: Don’t tolerate bullying.
And teach your kids not to tolerate it either.
Teach them to speak up when they see someone being picked one — especially if it’s a child with a disability who cannot stand up for themselves. Obviously, don’t encourage your child to fight, rather encourage them to use their words or notify an adult.
Let your kids know the way they respond when they see someone being wrongly treated matters.
7: Learn together.
Help your child learn that not all disabilities act or look alike.
Talk to them about visible and invisible disabilities as well ask chronic illnesses and diseases. Teach them how someone with a physical disability may not have a mental disability or the other way around. Also, teach them that people with disabilities can do many of the same things other children can do, it just might take them longer or they might need special equipment.
You can also take the time to research and learn about disabilities together. This will give you both a better understanding of the experience of someone who has a disability.
Go through your child’s collection of books to see if there are any that address disabilities. If not, add some! If there are, but the way they address them is outdated or disrespectful, replace them.
Another tool you can use to learn about different disabilities are TV shows, movies, or documentaries.
8: Be respectful.
This point really should be number 1, because this is the most important.
People are people, no matter their cognitive or physical abilities. All are deserving of polite and kind words. Name calling is never OK. Words like “dumb”, “stupid”, or “retarded” should never be used in reference to a person (though they probably shouldn’t be used at all).
The best way you can teach this is to model it. Smile and say “hi” when you see someone with special needs. Talk to the parents of a child with special needs, when you talk to the parents it will be much easier for your child to say something to the kid. Ultimately, it’s about teaching your child to see and value other people.
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