Talking to Kids About Disabilities

As parents, we have the opportunity to engage our children in their many curiosities. While there’s no doubt some of our kids’ questions will surprise us, others we can be prepared for. We can expect that, at some point, our children will notice people with disabilities and, naturally, have questions. Here are some tips for getting ahead of the conversation and having meaningful discussion about disabilities.

Accept Your Discomfort

If you’ve felt that tingle of discomfort when your child has had a question about a person who is different from them, you’re not alone.

“We’ve all received messages before that we shouldn’t talk openly and freely about disability,” says Kara Ayers, associate director of the University of Cincinnati Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities’ Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, who has a disability herself. “Sometimes our anxiety is based in what we feel is kindness. We don’t want to make others feel bad. By even accidentally shaming kids for asking questions, we can send a message we don’t want to: that disability itself is bad or that talking about it is bad.”

The important thing here is to remember that your child is most likely coming from a place of curiosity. By accepting your discomfort and proceeding with a direct and respectful conversation, you can help normalize disabilities, promote an inclusive mindset, and set a tone of empathy and respect, she says.

Talk Directly

Using clear, matter-of-fact language to talk about disabilities is not only respectful to the disabled community, it simply makes more sense to children. Practice direct conversation by:

Avoiding Euphemisms
Use the word disability. “Don’t make up words that are well-intended, like ‘handi-capable’ or even ‘special needs,’ because it inadvertently furthers stigma about disability when we aren’t even comfortable enough to say the word,” Ayers says.

Speaking in a Neutral Tone

Answer your child’s questions with neutral, fact-based responses, taking care not to invoke a sense of pity or sadness. For example, you could say, “Yes, that woman is walking with a guide dog. Guide dogs are trained to help people move around if they cannot see.”

Using Positive Language

Avoid language that implies that something is wrong with a disabled person. For example, instead of saying, “She uses a wheelchair because she can’t walk,” you can say, “Some people’s muscles work differently and a wheelchair helps them be able to move.”

Admitting What You Don’t Know

If you don’t have an immediate answer to your child’s question, responding with “I don’t know, but it’s something we can learn more about” is completely valid — just make sure to follow up.

Emphasize Similarities

Emphasizing similarities between people with and without disabilities helps develop empathy in your child. Make this personal by pointing out similarities your child has with a disabled person they know, such as they both like to draw or both like pizza. You can expand the conversation by asking your child about something they need help with, and pointing out that everyone needs help in some way and that this doesn’t describe everything about who they are.

Discuss Unseen Disabilities

While children may first notice visible disabilities, you can also point out disabilities we can’t always see, such as hearing impairment, autism and dyslexia. Explain that people with unseen disabilities may require special equipment or education services, and that they may have behaviors that are surprising or even scary. “Everyone is usually safe and if they aren’t, adults can help ensure safety,” Ayers recommends explaining to children. “[People] with these behaviors are still [people] who also want to learn, play and be accepted.”

Prioritize Inclusivity

It can be tempting to tell your kids to be “extra nice” to children they know who have a disability, but these acts of charity actually get in the way of inclusivity. “You may be surprised how we adults are unfortunately and often not intentionally still making it difficult for kids with and without disabilities to get to know each other,” Ayers says. Instead, she says to talk with your kids about how they can include and befriend kids with disabilities.

Use Teaching Tools

Seek out resources to help steer your family’s conversation about disabilities. Picture books are a go-to for young children, and you can find many great book lists that embrace disabilities, including Think Inclusive’s “Representation Matters: 10 Children’s Books With Disabled Characters.” Watching Sesame Street with your child and discussing the characters with disabilities can also be a good conversation starter. Finally, turn to the disabled community for education. “There are some excellent social media accounts where adults with disabilities are generously sharing their time and expertise on these topics,” Ayers says. “Listen to them.”

Conversations with your children about disabilities will be ongoing. The more they learn, the more nuanced your conversations may become. By educating yourself and approaching these talks with a mindset of inclusion and respect, you’ll be able to help your child better understand disabilities and show empathy toward those they meet.

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