Have you ever been in the grocery store and had your child innocently ask why a disabled stranger looks or acts the way he or she does? It can be an embarrassing situation for everyone. This is especially true when bystanders or the individual hear the questions. Children are naturally curious and may have never seen an individual with a disability before. Seeing someone with a prosthetic or missing limb, a white cane or a service dog, an individual in a wheelchair will naturally elicit many questions.
However, these moments provide valuable opportunities to develop appreciation and respect for individuals who are different than them. As part of our effort to increase awareness about disabling illness and injuries, we asked therapists, counselors, and child development professionals their best advice on how to most effectively teach children about disabilities and those that suffer with them. You can use the following tips to start your ongoing conversation about people with disabilities with your child. Let them continue to guide the conversations as they occur.
Do Not Pity Disabled People
“The last thing most people want is pity,” says Aundrea M. Peaslee, MA LCPC LMFT of Meridian Counseling Center. When you discuss disabled individuals, do not discuss them with a tone of pity. Your child can pick up on how you feel about an individual or a situation from the tone and language you use. Aundrea goes on to say, “Offer some ways for them to think about people with disabilities in a positive light. For example, saying, ‘He seems like he was pretty happy. I am glad he was able to get all his groceries.’ … dispelling that for kids can help them react more comfortably if a situation arises. Kids sometimes react poorly because they think there is a bad element to a person’s disability. Taking away any negative will create a calm open feeling towards the person.”
Pitying disabled people can foster the idea that disabled people cannot be their own advocates or complete tasks on their own.
Explain to your Children that disabled people can often lead very successful, independent lives.
Model Positive Relationships
Make it a point to interact with disabled individuals in your life in a positive, productive manner. Demonstrate that disabled individuals have social lives, jobs, families, and interactions, just like everybody else.
Lori Shade, LMFT of Compassionate Connections Counseling said, “I have a neighbor who is wheelchair bound with cerebral palsy. He is easily overlooked by passersby who are not at eye level. I always try really hard to stop and bend down and greet him and talk to him normally, even though he can’t respond like someone who speaks normally. I don’t want him to feel invisible, and I’m hoping my children are watching so they will develop comfort with disabled individuals.”
Talk About What Makes these Individuals the Same as your Child, Rather than What Makes them Different
“Sometimes disabilities take up so much space that children can’t see that they are more alike than different, which they are,” says Lori Schade of Compassionate Connections Counseling. “Look for similarities. They might like the same music or the same video games or the same sports. This is where learning people’s stories is helpful.”
Discuss Appropriate Ways of Speaking with Individuals About the Disabilities
Your child might blurt out something along the lines of, “what’s wrong with him/her?” in public. Remove the idea that having a disability is “wrong” in any way and that a disabled individual has a body part that is “broken.” Instead, impress the importance of appropriate conversation upon your child, such as greeting people with “hello” and “how are you?” If your child wants to learn more about an individual’s disability, he or she should do so in a non-offensive way. This can be accomplished by first asking the individual if he or she is comfortable discussing their disability.
On this topic Cynthia Mauzerall, the Director of The Health and Wellness Center at the College of Idaho Said, “I also feel that it is Ok to encourage inquiry if it is done at an appropriate time. For example, many people welcome someone saying, “tell me about your wheelchair” or “Are you comfortable telling me what happened to your arm?” Many persons with disabilities feel relief when people ask rather than stare awkwardly. If children are shamed for their questions it can lead them to feel that disabilities are bad or they will get in trouble if they ask questions/show interest.”
Encourage Empathy and Peer Relationships with Disabled Children
If your child knows a disabled student at school, encourage him or her to become friends with that child. Disabled children can often be left out of social events and peer groups. One way to build empathy in your child is to encourage him or her to be inclusive of others.
On this topic Megan Rigdon of Sunny Day Counseling said, “[My] recommendation would be to expose your children to other individuals with disabilities. By spending time with an individual who has autism or in a wheelchair, you begin to see them as the person they are, and not as the disability. One mother of a child with a disability shared with me that it only takes her a few seconds to know if someone has been around a person with a disability because she can tell by the way they interact with her child. Allow your children to get to know people with disabilities so it won’t be a novice thing, but rather something totally normal in their daily schemas.”
Natalie West of Children Home Society said, “The best advice I can give, is that every child wants friends, love, and happiness. This is despite any disability. Also, tell your children this and to try to think of this, with every child that has a disability, and more importantly to spread the word. Attitudes can be contagious, even good ones.”
Treat Disabled People as Individuals, Not One Homogenous Group
Kathy Bruner of Mountain Vista Counseling said of this topic, “I just don’t believe that people with disabilities are in a [separate] category, except by our own laws and rules. They are just people, and like anyone, may need help with some things.”
Not all disabled people experience life the same way. Some live independently and hold jobs while others rely on caretakers and might not be able to do much for themselves. Similarly, not all disabled individuals are comfortable discussing or showing their disabilities; some even actively hide their disabilities. As discussed above, respecting personal boundaries is key to developing healthy relationships with disabled individuals and modeling empathy for others.
Talk to your Child About Bullying and the Bystander Effect
Your child will probably encounter disabled students at school. Talk about hurtful words and actions, like leaving individuals out or calling them names. “Children can help prevent bullying by not staying silent when others are bullying,” says Schade. “Teach them to talk to you or a teacher about it.”
Remember to Discuss Non-Physical Disabilities
Not all disabilities are physical or even visible to others. Some conditions, like autism, are behavioral. Discuss these disabilities with your child as well when talking about physical disabilities. “Teach them to broaden their understanding of disabilities, that disabilities extend far beyond what can be seen or heard,” says J. Marshall Lamm, CMHC of LifeWorks Counseling.
Similarly, Tonya Miller of Swinton Counseling said, “When we are respectful of others, we can’t go wrong! Some disabilities are visible, (like being in a wheelchair) and others are invisible (like autism). It’s one hundred percent okay for kids to ask questions about people who look or behave in unfamiliar ways. When respect is the bottom line, these questions can turn into great opportunities to talk about values and individuality.”
We All Have Our Differences – and That’s Okay
In conclusion, we need to teach our children that everyone is different and that’s okay.
Aundra M. Peaslee of Meridian Counseling Center said, “Everyone is different and we should teach our kids– no matter how a person differs from us, we still are to love and respect them… This principle can help with a child’s self esteem. Kids need to understand that even though we are all different and have flaws, we are still lovable and accepted. This concept frees us from feelings of shame and sadness that we all struggle with at times. It is OK to be different. It is OK to not be perfect. No one is and that’s OK.”
Content compiled by the Utah Social Security Disability Lawyers at Summit Disability Law Group