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How to Talk About Disability with Your Child

Updated: Apr 26, 2022

When a child sees a person with a visible disability, or a person with a different way of walking, talking, moving, acting, or looking, how do they respond? Do they ask how the person got their owie? Do they ask what’s wrong with them? Do they stare? Are they afraid? Are they speechless? Are you, the grown adult, wondering how the heck you should respond?

You’re not alone. Parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles, childcare providers, and teachers alike can be stopped in their tracks and turned into blushing, bumbling, otherwise responsible and capable adults, by simple, innocent inquiries, spoken or thought, by children.

If you’re lucky, the individual themself will talk to your child and empathetically educate them. However, it is not their responsibility to do so. It’s important not to expect this, and to also respect individual abilities, personalities, and preferences.

If you find yourself in the situation where you know you ought to dig out some golden nuggets for your child to cherish for a lifetime, here are a few guidelines.

  1. Frame disability as normal and natural.

  2. Frame disability as a valuable part of diversity.

  3. Frame disability as worthy of dignity and respect.

  4. Frame disability from a perspective that people are more disabled by society through lack of access and lack of inclusion, than by their own physical, mental, or developmental limitations.

  5. Acknowledge that societal barriers (inaccessible environments, ableist policies and attitudes) are what people with disabilities must overcome.

  6. Never frame disability as “inspirational,” or as something people should “overcome,” so that we can feel inspired.

  7. Never frame disability as tragic, as something we should feel pity for, or something we should be thankful that we are not.

  8. Never use euphemisms for the word “disability” such as “handicapable, differently-abled” and “special needs,” unless a person with a disability specifically wants you to use those terms. “Disability” is not a bad word and there is no need to replace it with other softer terms that make attempts to avoid stigma. Remove the stigma from your thoughts instead.

So, you might be wondering, what do I say then?

Here are a few possible comments or questions that might lead to some authentic and progressive discussion:

  1. “People are all made differently. Isn’t that cool?”

  2. What are some other ways people are different besides that some people have disabilities?

  3. Do you have any questions about the person we saw in the wheelchair (or who was yelling and laying on the floor in the supermarket, or who used crutches, or whose face or body was different than you have seen before, or who was using a white cane, or who had a service dog, or who was communicating through sign language, etc.)? Note: you might not have all the answers, and it’s ok to admit that to your child. Acknowledge the question and tell the child that you will ask around and try to find an answer because you believe it’s important to get to know all kinds of people and be an inclusive human.

  4. What are some things that every person needs in order to live a happy life (i.e. Yes, the basics of food, water, air, and shelter, of course. But also, to be loved, respected, included, to have access to friendship, education, healthcare, communication, meaningful jobs, safe surroundings, full self-expression through art, music, etc.)? The goal here is to connect the idea that we all have the same needs and desires. We just access our needs in different ways.

  5. And of course, model dignity, respect, and an inclusive mindset by simply saying, “hello” to people with disabilities as opportunities arise.

Preparing in Advance:

  1. Be home, at work, at school, at church, wherever, all the time. Model commitment to inclusivity, by ensuring access and embracing and welcoming all.

  2. Whenever topics of disability come up, be sure to follow the 8 guidelines above. Normalization of disability is key to ensuring that your child is prepared to thrive in, and contribute to a diverse community.

The bottom line is that with limited media representation of disabled people, and with little exposure to people with disabilities as equal participants in our homes, schools, and communities, your child needs you to guide them. The disability community needs you to guide them in an anti-ableist direction. Your contribution in this matter will make a difference for years to come.

Our children of today will be the community members, business owners, law enforcement officers, teachers, medical professionals, politicians, co-workers, neighbors, friends, and parents of tomorrow. Because you took the time to educate yourself and practice and model diversity appreciation and inclusion, your child will be equipped to be inclusive and make the world a better place.

Diana is an educator, speaker, author, and podcast host of Beyond Awareness: Disability Awareness That Matters. To learn about Diana's journey with her brother, Joaquin, and his successful transition from institutionalization to community living, watch Diana's TEDx Talk here. Or listen to her podcast interview on the Think Inclusive Podcast here.

For Diana's free resource for educators, The 5 Keys to Going Beyond Awareness, click here.

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