At the end of the day all children want to be understood and accepted. They want to be included and be amongst their peers. Children are both curious and observant. As parents, it’s our job to nurture our child’s curiosity, and to teach them about the world around them. We attempt to model kindness in hopes of fostering compassion and empathy in our children. We continuously preach the importance of sharing, and how to treat others. What happens when one your child’s questions are directed towards a person with a disability? Time and time again, the response I see most is a parent scolding or silencing their child on the matter. By not answering the questions or responding in a negative way, you are giving off the impression that there is something shameful or wrong with having a disability. I encourage you to use this time to teach your child about disability awareness.
Disability awareness is the educating of others on disabilities and impairments. It also includes providing the proper support and information for a person with a disbaility to efficiently carry out a task or job. The ADA has created several regulations including laws that require buildings to be wheel chair accessible, requirements on ADA braille signs, and making discrimination against someone with a disability unlawful. 1 in 20 children have a disability. This means there are millions of people who are vision, hearing, or speech impaired. Or have a developmental or intellectual disability. Society has come far in the accommodations for those who have a disabilites, but still have far to go in the acts of acceptance and employment. Help break down the stereotypes and misconceptions that follow those who have disabilities, and have the conversation. Unsure where to start? Here’s 5 tips on explaining disability awareness to your child.
Use Correct and Respectful Terminology: When your child begins to ask questions or has made a remark about a person who has a disbailty, it’s important you address the remark. When speaking to your child make sure you are being straight forward and matter of fact. Always be sure to use appropriate terms, and stray away from outdated terminology. The use of words like retarded, wheel chair bound, handicapped, hearing impaired, the disabled, and cripple are equally offensive and out-dated. Using a ‘person first’ language is widely accepted within the disabilities community. Some examples would be a person hard of hearing, a person who is intellectually disabled, a person with a disability, or a person who uses a wheel chair. Be sure to speak in a positive manner when explaining that people have different needs. And make sure they understand there is nothing wrong with being different.
Explaining Wheel Chairs: When children first see a wheel chair they are understandably curious. What is that? Why can’t she walk? Is he sick? This is when you need to explain that a wheel chair is a means of helping a person get where they need to go. Sometimes people aren’t able to walk well or at all. A wheel chair is a means for a person to be independent and without assistance. Children commonly assume a wheel chair means someone is sick or hurt. Explain that they are not ill, and once again a wheel chair is a means of getting around efficiently. It’s easy to assume a person might need a helping hand, but before you jump up to assist your friend- ask first. Be sure to make eye contact or get on eye level with someone who is using a wheel chair. Things like leaning or hanging on someone’s wheel chair is unacceptable. remind your child that a wheel chair is NOT a toy. Do not attempt to navigate a person, unless they’ve requested your help. If you’re unsure if you should assist a person, just ask. No harm done. What it comes down to it be respectful, always ask first, and make eye contact.
Be Straight Forward and Positive: When explaining to your child about someone who has special needs or a disability it’s important to explain yourself in a matter of fact way to prevent any room for misconceptions. Talk to your child about how some people have different needs, and emphasize the importance of being kind to all. Encourage them to make friendships with those who appear different or look like they need a friend. I am by no means saying that you are to tell your child who to be-friend. What I am saying is emphasize the importance of inclusion and give them a positive sense of others who appear different.
Answering Your Child’s Questions: Realistically it’s impossible to know exactly what to say when your child comes at you with an unexpected question. Here’s a few examples to help fill those blanks.
Example: Your child asks why someone is in a wheel chair. You can respond that she uses a wheel chair because it makes it easier for her to get around. Sometimes people aren’t able to walk or have trouble walking, and this is way for her to do that easily. Plain and simple.
Example: Your child notices someone is non-verbal and asks why. Talk to your child about how everyone is different and unique. Explain how people have different ways of communicating. And that just because they don’t speak doesn’t mean they are not able to hear or understand what you’re saying. There are numerous ways of communication that aren’t verbal. People communicate through body language, eye contact, stimming, facial expression, tone, sign language, computer generated speech, assistive communication apps, and more. And lastly non-verbal does not mean stupid or that an individual has a low I.Q.
Example: Your child asks about the behavior of a person who has Autism. At this point your child maybe confused and making all sorts of observations. Understand they are curious and are probably waiting for you to respond or react. Firstly, SMILE. Then proceed to tell them that some people interact and feel things differently. And that this isn’t wrong or bad behavior. You can mention how sometimes people have certain sensitivities that cause them react in a ‘different’ way that their used to. And thats okay! You yourself can break the ice by saying hello and greeting them, just as you would anyone else. If your child asks about someone wearing noise canceling head phones, you can just easily explain how they may have sensitive hearing. And with the help of noise canceling head phones, it lets a person be able to focus and not become too overwhelmed. Be sure to mention that someone can still hear you while wearing their headphones. This is a common misconception that leads people to not interact with those wearing them.
Bullying: It’s not enough to assume your child isn’t capable of bullying, or that it’s not in their character. When you assume your child knows better, you’re putting your child at risk of being a bully. It doesn’t take much for children to gang up on someone for something- anything. Children partake in making fun of others for numerous reasons. Sometimes that person feels bad about themselves, or is reflecting learned behavior. Whatever the reason there is absolutely no excuse for bullying. Make it clear to your child that bullying does not just consist of name calling. It’s isolating someone, singling someone out, treating someone with little or no respect, or making someone feel less. And lastly bullying is absolutely unacceptable behavior.
The overall goal of disability awareness is to promote inclusion and educate the public on people with disabilities. We still as a society have far to go in disability acceptance and inclusion. You are your child’s biggest role model. All of this starts at home with you. Learn the facts and talk to your children about disability awareness.