As someone who majored in elementary and special education in college, I’ve known a lot of children. I also have four “surrogate little sisters” — four girls who are the daughters of close family friends. I’m no stranger to explaining my disability to children. Interestingly enough, I’ve found time and time again that it’s not the children who have a problem with my disability. It’s the adults.
So what do you do if you’re a parent wanting to introduce disability to your children? Unfortunately, I’ve found that when children encounter me in a public setting, their parents do one of two things. Either they yank their children out of the way like I’m a monster truck intent on barreling down their precious little ones, or they shush their children loudly when they ask questions. Neither one of those responses are going to teach children that disability is normal, natural, and nothing to be afraid of.
So here are some handy dos and don’ts to keep in mind when introducing disability to your children. Disclaimer: I am not a parent, though I would like to have children someday. This list is based on things I’ve witnessed or gone through myself. I’m not pretending to have any expertise in the area of parenting; however, I do have twenty-two years of expertise in being disabled.
DO: Talk to your children about disability (if they ask).
Children are naturally inquisitive, and if they see a wheelchair user or someone who is visibly disabled in some way, they’re going to be curious. Shushing your children only reinforces the idea that disability is a taboo subject that is shameful and not to be talked about. Take the time to answer your children’s questions as openly and as honestly as possible, and at an age-appropriate level. Remember, you are your children’s main teachers throughout life.
DON’T: Make a big deal out of the disability talk.
In addition to being naturally inquisitive, children are naturally open-minded. Maybe they have a classmate with a disability, or maybe they play with some disabled children on the playground. Chances are, they notice the disability, but they don’t see it as the one defining feature of the person in the way that many adults do. To them, their friend may be kind, funny, and really good at math – and they happen to use a wheelchair, or they happen to communicate with a communication device, or they happen to learn differently. Sitting your child down for a Big Talk about disability makes disability something foreign — and maybe even scary. If you feel you need to talk about it with your child, just make it a part of normal, everyday conversation.
DO: Encourage your children to help, but DON’T encourage them to force that help on people.
These two go hand in hand and may sound like a contradiction in terms. How can you encourage your children to help people with disabilities, but at the same time, encourage them NOT to help? It’s simple. Teach your children to always ask if someone needs help — and to respect the answer. Sometimes, if they don’t ask and start helping, that’s okay, but if the person they’re helping asks them to stop, teach them to respect that. Just as in other situations, no means no!
Be especially careful not to make it sound as though your child needs to help out of duty or because the other person “needs them.” That sets up a power struggle in which one person is the “do-gooder,” always giving help, and the other person is the passive recipient of that help. Teach your children that help can go both ways, and remind them that they can benefit from help sometimes, too. Help isn’t just for disabled people.
More Radical Reads: What Disability Bigotry Looks Like
Again, the main thing here is to not make a big deal out of it. When I was in elementary school, it was accepted that I needed help with some things. Here’s a sample conversation about help:
Child: “Johnny dropped his pencil today. I asked if he wanted me to help pick it up, and he said, ‘Yes.’ So I picked it up for him.”
Parent: “That’s great! Johnny’s good at math, right?”
Parent: “Maybe you can ask him to help you with your math homework sometime.”
Child: “Okay. Maybe he can help me with fractions.”
See how easy that was?
DO: Surround your children with diverse people at a young age.
This advice goes for all forms of diversity, not just disability. But in terms of disability, make sure that you surround yourself and your family with people with a wide variety of disabilities. The more your kids are around people with disabilities, the more comfortable they’ll feel with it, and the more they’ll view disabled people as just people.
The director of the camp for physically disabled children I went to as a teen met his wife while they were both working at the camp, and together they have three beautiful children. Over the summers, those kids naturally mingle and play with the campers. A lot of times, they’ll eat with the campers in the dining hall and join the campers for evening activity. It’s not unusual at all to see them with their parents in the pool or running around camp during the day. They’re not afraid of the campers or see them as anything but other kids. I’m positive that those three children will grow up to be some of the most accepting adults ever.
DO: De-mystify mobility aids and other disability-related objects, and encourage your children to see them as part of a person’s body.
When children first see mobility aids, or communication devices, or any other object that helps disabled people live our lives, it can feel weird and sometimes even scary, especially if they’ve never seen the device before. Sometimes, if children have previously been taught that mobility aids are only used by elderly people or by people who have temporary injuries, there may be confusion. Explain that the object helps the person do [fill in the blank activity] and tell them that the object is like an arm or a leg to that person. Teach your children to politely ask permission to touch or try out the aid. Make sure that they respect the answer if the person says no or can only go without the aid for a few minutes.
More Radical Reads: But You Look Fine to Me: Invisible Disability and Flying
DON’T: Compare a wheelchair to a car. Please. Just don’t.
As pet peeves go, this one is near the top of my list. Even grown adults will make jokes about a speed limit, tell me I should have a horn on my chair (they’re right, I should, just to get rid of annoying people like them), and generally make every car comparison they can possibly think of. Not only are these comments extraordinarily irritating, but I believe it can also be damaging when children are taught to think of wheelchairs like cars. Children are taught that, if they run out into the street, or if a driver isn’t being careful enough, a car can hurt them. This knowledge instills a fear in them — a fear that is utterly necessary when you’re talking about cars, but completely unnecessary when you’re talking about wheelchairs. This kind of fearful mindset leads mothers to yank their children out of my path when I’m coming towards them — which is, frankly, insulting to my powerchair driving skills.
Children shouldn’t be taught to fear wheelchairs and wheelchair users. Instead, frame the idea of a wheelchair as a supplement to that person’s legs. Explain that some people’s legs aren’t that strong, and that they need a little help to get around.
Explaining disability and other differences to children can be difficult but, hopefully, these tips will guide you. Above all, remember that children pick up on what adults do and mimic that behavior. If you exhibit a positive, respectful attitude towards disabled people, your children will, too.