Part of ableism manifests in the way in which disabilities and the resultant exclusion are rarely acknowledged much less discussed with a view to remedying the situation. Talking to children about disability is important. It broadens their understanding of the world and the people around them. It also prepares them for when they meet disabled people. Here are some tips for talking to children about disabilities.
Don’t avoid it
Most parents underestimate the importance of talking to children about disability and often neglect it. Some go as far as changing the subject when children raise questions. In the event that it is a difficult subject to talk about because you have not done it before, do some research and the next time an opportunity presents itself, be courageous and answer them.
If you don’t talk to children about disability, their interest and curiosity does not diminish. All they learn is that you are for one reason or another unwilling to engage on the subject. Be open to discussion and let them know they can come to you with any questions and there will be no judgment. Encourage them to talk and listen to them. Allow them to voice any fears they have. If you’re able to, satisfy their curiosity for example by letting them sit in a wheelchair if they ask.
Use positive language
When talking to children about disabilities, it’s important to use positive language. There’s already so much negativity and implied negativity because of avoidance that it’s important to be conscious about what you say and how you say it. Instead of saying there’s something wrong with that child’s legs, you could say they need a wheelchair to help them move around or glasses to see for a visually impaired person.
Another way to be positive while talking to children about disability is to talk about similarities as well, not just differences. Talk about the similarities that show that people are just people, things like similar taste in music or a favourite toy they have in common for younger children.
Be honest and factual
Educate yourself about disability and be ready to impart honest, factual information. Let them know that people with disabilities are just a little different which does not make them bad. Be matter of fact about the limitations, for example saying that someone had an accident that resulted in their leg not working as it should.
When talking to children about disabilities, there is a tendency to focus only on physical disabilities. Explain that some people are born with disabilities while others become disabled in the course of living. Let them know that there’s nothing wrong with people living with disabilities and disability is not a bad word. Depending on how old they are, you can explain that there are visible and invisible disabilities. Clarify that a physical disability does not mean someone has a cognitive disability as well.
Prepare yourself for some tough questions when talking to children about disabilities. Why were they born like that? In the case of a child living with a disability, are they going to live to grow up? You may need to bust some myths they may have picked up from their peers.
Learn about disabilities together
There is every possibility that when talking to children about disability they raise some questions you do not know the answer to. In such instances, be honest and tell them you will try to find out the answer and get back to them.
Alternatively, talking to your children about disability may present an opportunity for you to model continuous learning to them. Buy books about disabilities and learn more about them together. Their age will determine the type of books you buy from picture books to more adult boos covering everything from types of disabilities to stigma and efforts at inclusion. Watch age-appropriate videos and documentaries about disability, awareness and inclusion together. Consider speaking to other parents about learning together as well or even seeing if the school administration is willing to set up some disability awareness activities.
Teach kindness and sensitivity
When talking to your children about disability, remind them to be kind and respectful to everyone. There is a possibility that your child may hear some unkind words used to describe someone or their disability. There’s also a chance that they will repeat those words. Address these unkind words right away and remind them that they are hurtful. Don’t allow your child to participate in mean behaviour, certainly not without any negative consequences to it. Make it clear that imitating people with disabilities and laughing at them is wrong.
Children are incredibly observant. Modelling proper behaviour is an essential part of talking to children about disabilities. One parent tells the story of an autistic boy at her child’s school who loves to greet every single person who enters the school. She says people often ignore him which is heart-breaking. How difficult is it to wave back?
It’s the simple things, don’t ignore people living with disabilities around you. It can be as simple as opening the door for someone in a wheelchair. When talking to your children about disability, teach them to ask other children to join them even if the other kid looks different.