Speaking to Your Children About Disabilities

There’s nothing earth-shattering in this statement, except that parents are complaining about her. Why? She only has one arm.

Complaints have ranged from “she’s scaring my child” to “now I’m being forced to talk to my child about disabilities.” While the former statement makes some sense to me (children are, after all, frightened by out of the ordinary things sometimes) the latter statement does not make sense. Is it really that bad that parents “have” to talk to their children about disabilities somewhere along the line?

Children are going to notice a disabled person inevitably, even if a television show doesn’t have a disabled host. We as parents need to matter-of-factly consider teaching our children about disabilities just as we teach them how to dress themselves or how to count. Instead of dreading the day it comes up, we should prepare for it beforehand. Chances are, children are going to catch us off guard right in front of the disabled person instead of waiting until we’re in the privacy of our own homes, so it’s better to be prepared — and help them be prepared as well.

Parents need to come to grips with disabilities themselves.

I am fortunate in this because I grew up with a profoundly mentally handicapped aunt and handicapped foster cousins. I also had friends in my childhood that had disabilities. One had braces on his legs, another, like Cerrie, had been born with only one arm.

I can dimly recall a time when I realized they were different, but for me, these relatives and friends were not someone to be scared of or embarrassed by. One arm, in my childlike mind, was no different than the thick glasses I had to wear.

That mentality has followed me into my adulthood, during which I have met other adults with disabilities — a friend with Apert’s Syndrome, another who has a fake leg, a friend who has been blind since birth, another friend who is a little person, and a mentally handicapped cousin of my husband’s. I notice disabilities but I don’t feel uncomfortable around people with them.

This isn’t true for other grown adults. Those who did not have the advantage I had almost freeze up when they see a person who has a disability and they aren’t sure how to act. In most cases, the simple advice is, “Act like you would if they weren’t disabled.”  Sometimes the disability becomes all we can see and we forget the disabled person is exactly the same as us.

Don’t avoid it.

It’s hard to know how to act sometimes if we see a person in a wheelchair or who is blind. We don’t want to insult them by offering to help them but we are afraid that if we don’t offer, we’re not being kind. So we avoid them altogether. If our child points out, “Mama, look at that person,” we hush them up and move them quickly away. What is ideal is to be straight up with the person.

If you’re not sure if they need help, come out and say it. “I don’t know if you’d rather I help push you up the ramp or if you’d rather do it yourself,” or, “Do you need help getting to the buffet line?” People with disabilities usually have a confident grasp on where they are in life and are able to tell you what they do or don’t need from you. In my experience, they would prefer us to address the situation head on than to pretend they don’t exist.

When it comes to our children’s reactions, especially to strangers, that can be a bit harder. Because we don’t know the person, we can’t be assured they would rather the situation not be paid attention to or if, instead, they welcome questions about their condition.

One of my disabled friends, when I asked him once what he preferred, said the children were a blessed relief because they were so candid in their questions and it was the parents’ embarrassment that embarrassed him the most, as they tried to steer their children away from him as if he had some disease.

In the smallest way I can relate to this. I have what is called a keloid tumor on my left ear. It is a tumor that can’t be surgically removed because it grows as a result of scar tissue and surgery only creates more scar tissue which makes the tumor bigger. You can’t see this tumor when looking at me straight on, but if you are a child, looking up at me, you can see it, or if my hair is back and I tip my head just right.

I once had a pre-teen ask me what was wrong with my ear in front of his mother, and she quickly “shushed” him, her face turning beat red while at the same time curiously staring at my ear and wondering herself what was wrong. It was more of a relief to tell her it was “ok” and explain what it was, than it would have been to ignore the entire exchange. I hate the tumor on my ear, and of course I’d rather not have it, but I hate it more when people stare while pretending not to stare at it. It’s actually more of a relief when people come right out and ask me what it is. Then I can explain it and we can move on with our conversation.

When your child points out an obvious disability, look at the person and notice their face. If you see anger in their face, then yes, it’s probably best to move your child away as quickly as possible. However, if you see a smile and an invitation in their facial expression to speak to them, stop and allow your child to ask questions. If the individual is looking pleasant then chances are they are willing to be open about their situation and can teach your child some invaluable lessons as they share.

We’re all different.

When teaching our children about disabilities, we need to teach them that we’re all different. Some of us are more noticeably different than others, but none of us are the same. One person may use sign language to talk, but another person may struggle with being very shy. Leg braces and crutches might help someone walk, but another person might need a tutor to pass math class. It’s important to note that we all have things that could hold us back if we let them, some just can’t be seen.

Have children think about what it may be like.

If a child has met a blind person, have them go around blindfolded for a short period of time to gain an understanding of what blindness is like. Borrow a wheelchair if you can and have them pretend for a day that they are unable to walk (the novelty of this will last until they realize this means they need you to help them go to the bathroom!). Have them stuff cotton in their ears to simulate deafness or have them tie one arm to their side to see what it’s like to live without an arm.

Some disabilities can’t be addressed this way. Some, like disfigurement or speech impediments, are harder to act out. Instead, have your child think about what they might think and feel if they had such an issue in their life. Discuss ways they might struggle because of the disability and how people might respond. Have them think about how they would want people to respond if they had that particular disability.

Teach them thankfulness.

After the above exercise, what better time than to teach children gratitude for what they have: their sight, two strong legs, the ability to hear, etc.?

Teach your children about world-changing disabled people.

The stories are endless about disabled people changing the world. We can teach our children how those people have developed other abilities, such as painting with their mouth despite being paralyzed from the neck down , or playing the piano by ear despite being profoundly autistic.  There is Bethany Hamilton, who still surfs despite a shark biting off her arm; David Patterson, who is the Governor of New York despite being blind; Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf but became a college graduate, learned French, German, Greek, and Latin (braille), and wrote ten books; and Ludwig Van Beethoven, who was deaf but is one of the most well-known classical music composers the world has ever known. The stories are endless and they are inspiring to say the least.

Disabilities don’t mean inability. In fact, sometimes disabilities translate into superb ability that those of us who aren’t disabled will never understand!