As parents, there are so many things that we need to help our kids learn. I think every parent or guardian has had a similar experience of the first time their toddler saw someone with a visible disability. Maybe the child saw a person in a wheelchair, or someone with dwarfism, and they pointed and stared. Perhaps the child said loudly, “Look! What is wrong with that person?” For many parents, this is the first point of entry into introducing disability to our kids. During that moment, panic might set in, and we might quickly hush our child because we do not want their words or actions to hurt or offend another person.
The reality is that there are many different types of disabilities, visible and invisible. We can try to teach our children about every different one, but there are a few principles that we can teach our children to help them understand any type of disability better.
1. Talk to your kids about differences, wherever you see them. When looking at a vase of flowers, talk about how each flower looks and smells different. Talk about how all of the flowers are the same in some ways. Talk about how all of the flowers make a beautiful bouquet.
2. Talk about the differences and similarities in your own family. Discuss how you might be great at art and your partner is great at running, and how you both like reading books.
3. Don’t hide disabilities within your own family. Many disabilities come with stigma, and family members try to hide certain disabilities from one another or from people outside of the family. If you talk about accepting differences, but don’t actually live that out in your own family, your child will learn to see disabilities as something bad that need to be hidden. I have always been honest with my son that I have an invisible disability, mental illness.
4. Remember that kids relate most things to themselves. Toddlers, in particular, see things as “good” and “bad” and often wonder whether a difference they see in someone else can happen to them. Let kids know that differences just happen, and that disabilities are simply part of life.
5. Encourage wondering. Kids may feel uneasy about asking questions directly, so ask what they wonder about: “What do you wonder about the person walking with a cane? I wonder what his family is like. How about you?”
6. Talk with your kids about visible and invisible disabilities. As kids get into school, they will meet kids with learning and other disabilities. Discuss how our minds and bodies are different, and how we learn differently.
7. Address when a child comments on a difference in people close to them. If your child says something like, “When we read out loud in class, Mary always sounds so funny,” you can discuss times when they acted differently from their friends and how it felt to have people notice.
8. Avoid hushed or quick reactions when your child notices people with disabilities. A quick look of shock and a “Be quiet” to a child sends the accidental message that wondering about people who are different is bad.
9. Educate yourself. Learn about different visible and invisible disabilities, particularly from people who live with them.
10. Remember, you will mess up. Forgive yourself when you do, and talk to your kids about it. Things will surprise us, and we can’t always act perfectly. Let your kids know when you struggle and how you might do things differently next time.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a toddler with a hearing aid seated at a table playing a counting game. Behind the child are two adult figures.]