Kids are curious, and that’s a wonderful thing. But sometimes they ask difficult questions, and we might feel awkward or embarrassed as we’re unsure what to say.
This can often be the case when they encounter someone with a disability, especially if most of their contact is with non-disabled children and adults. It’s important to be open, honest, and use language that is appropriate and destigmatising.
‘Don’t stare’ doesn’t help
If it’s the first time your child has seen someone with visible disabilities, their instinct will be to look. While we want to make sure they don’t offend anyone, telling them not to stare gives them the message that there’s something negative or shameful about the person’s condition, or even that they’re to be avoided.
It’s ok to notice; many people with disabilities, and parents with disabled children, welcome the chance to answer questions. It’s an opportunity to explain, raise awareness and break down barriers.
Obviously, there’s a line between interest and intrusion, but telling your child to ‘Hush’ and hurrying them away doesn’t promote acceptance and understanding of anyone who is different to them.
Be matter-of-fact. It’s ok to say that someone has Down’s syndrome and talk about what that is, for example.
Try not to get too hung up on the ‘correct’ terms to use; some argue that calling someone ‘differently abled’ is more respectful, while others feel this marginalises them and prefer ‘disabled’. If you know someone well enough or feel comfortable doing so, you can always ask which they favour.
Remember also that some words are derogatory and that children are like sponges, soaking up everything they hear. If you call someone a ‘cripple’, they are likely to remember the word and use it in future.
Teach your child not to make assumptions
It’s important to explain not all disabilities are physical and not everyone has an obvious indicator like a wheelchair. Your child should learn that cognitive issues, mental illness and many other disabilities are not as obvious, and that person they think is behaving in a strange way might have a less visible condition.
It’s also important not to say that people with disabilities are ‘sick’. Some people are born with special needs, while others have suffered illness or accidents. It doesn’t make them unwell.
Focus on the positives
Instead of telling your child that someone can’t do something, explain how their aids help them in life.
Don’t say: “No, that little boy can’t walk.” Instead, try: “Yes, that little boy has got a walking frame. His legs are formed a little differently to yours, so he needs it to help him move around.”
Teach your child to look for people’s strengths and point out that everyone finds some things easier than others. Perhaps a person can’t run, but they might excel at playing an instrument or speak four languages.
Foster understanding and empathy by asking your child how they would feel if they were the person with the disability, and how they would hope to be treated by those around them.
Emphasise the similarities
It’s easy to focus on differences, but instead discuss with your child how people with disabilities are the same as them.
Do they think that person in the wheelchair still likes to have fun and loves spending time with family? Perhaps they enjoy watching sport or have a pet they care about. What kind of music might they like to listen to?
Show that just because someone has a disability, it doesn’t define their whole lives – just as having brown hair or blue eyes doesn’t define your child.
Talk about bullying
Sadly, children with disabilities are often easy targets. Consider why it’s wrong to make fun of someone and hurt their feelings just because they might look or act a little differently. Encourage your child to speak up if they see anyone else doing this.
Remind them that someone with a disability can find life harder to cope with, and they need friendship and understanding just like everyone else – especially if they are children, too.