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7 things I want my kids to learn about disabilities

7 things I want my kids to learn about disabilities

A few days into this school year, I was asking my son about his new preschool classmates. He told me a few names that he could remember, and then he said, “Mom, do you know what? There is one boy in a wheelchair.”

“Oh?” I replied. “What’s his name?”

“I don’t know,” he answered.

“Well, maybe you could ask him.”

“But Mom, he doesn’t know how to talk.”

This was one of those moments as a mom where I realized we were having an important conversation. I stopped what I was doing, and sat down by him. I know I could have said, “Oh, that’s too bad,” and let the conversation drop. But instead, I sensed it was an opportunity to teach him to reach out to someone who may seem different from him:

“Well, maybe tomorrow you can ask your teacher his name, and then you can say ‘hi’ to him. Do you think he might like having a friend say hello?”

He nodded and smiled, and went back to eating his snack. That was that. The next day, he came home excited to tell me that he had learned this boy’s name.

Ever since then we regularly have conversations about Sam (name changed). He tells me things like what Sam was for Halloween, and about when it was his birthday at school, and how his hands shake when my son says hello to him. I still don’t know exactly what disability Sam has, but I love hearing my son talk about his friend and how he is learning to communicate with him.

The facts

According to the 2014 Cornell University Disability Status Report, more than 12% of Americans have some kind of disability. Now, there is no single accepted definition of what constitutes “disability”, so various surveys report larger or smaller estimates.

Regardless of the exact numbers, the fact remains: a significant portion of our population has a disability, and our children will encounter these individuals in life.

Our choice as parents

The question is this: will we teach our children to look away and “not stare” for fear of being rude, or will we teach our children to reach out and make a new friend, ask genuine questions, and look beyond the disability to see the person?

Perhaps we need to stop thinking of people as having disabilities, but instead of having different abilities. A disability is only one facet of a person, and in my experience, those with special needs still have much to offer the world.

My experience

I grew up near an aunt, uncle, and two cousins who are deaf. As a child, I thought it was so cool that when we went to their house, instead of the doorbell ringing, their lights flashed on and off. I loved learning to sign the alphabet and waving “I love you” in sign language as we drove away. It was normal to me to have to get their attention before talking, and make sure that I was standing so that everyone in the conversation could see my mouth. We laughed and played just like any cousins would; they are some of the funniest, most optimistic, and generous people I know.

Shortly after I started dating my husband, I met his younger brother, who has spina bifida and has been in a wheelchair his whole life. As much as I know that there are real challenges that come with raising a child with disabilities, what my husband talks about most is how much everyone in the family adores this brother and how much it has blessed their family to have him as a part of it.

My experiences with people with disabilities have taught me some important life lessons and given me a broader perspective on life. As my children get older, I hope their lives will be enriched by getting to know people different from them, like I have.

As they do, here are seven lessons I hope they learn about people with disabilities:

Don’t feel sorry for them

I recently asked my cousin (who is deaf) what things she wished people would learn about individuals with disabilities and her first response was, “Don’t feel sorry for someone who is different.” She explained how she has never, even as a little girl, wished she could hear. Being deaf is an important part of who she is, and it’s not a bad thing. She has been successful in life. She graduated from college and works as an educator. She is happy.

We all have our own challenges. Some people deal with anxiety or depression. Some fight addictions or eating disorders. Some struggle with self-confidence or food allergies. Some challenges are just more visible to strangers than others, like being in a wheelchair. Just because someone looks different doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t have a fulfilling life.

It’s okay to ask questions

We often get embarrassed when our kids ask about the boy in the wheelchair or the girl with Down Syndrome—usually a little too loud—but it’s important to use those moments to teach our children, not to shame them. If your response is, “Shush, don’t stare!” it teaches your child that there is something wrong with that person. When you take the time to educate your child (and yourself) about a person with a disability, you dispel the fear of the unknown and prepare your child to respond with kindness in the future.

I know we don’t want to offend others, but—to be honest—people with disabilities are used to being looked at. They understand that they are different, and many are willing to teach someone who is genuinely curious. People I have talked to are never offended by a child’s innocent curiosity.

Smile and wave

Rather than averting your eyes, smile and wave. If the person responds kindly, consider talking to them.

Look for similarities

It’s important to remind kids that people with disabilities still have abilities. Sometimes, kids with disabilities get excluded from activities because they can’t participate in typical ways. However, with a little thought, kids can find ways to play together, even when one has a disability. Another cousin of mine told me about how his daughter (who is also deaf) has become good friends with a girl who can hear but who has limited use of one of her arms. Their favorite activity to do together? Bowling. Neither of them has a disadvantage in this activity, and they both enjoy it.

When planning a play date with a child with disabilities, find activities that everyone can do without restriction. While kids in wheelchairs may not be able to go swimming or play tag (at least not in the typical ways), they can still do many activities: play board games, watch movies, go on walks/rides, do art projects, read books, etc. As I’ve talked with my four-year-old about his friend Sam from school, we’ve discussed ways he can play and work with this friend. Because Sam has limited use of his hands, other kids in the class help him with his art projects. When helping, they can still ask Sam what colors he wants, if he likes how it looks, etc. Sam may not be able to respond with words, but he can express emotions to his friends.

Help your kids see all the things that they have in common with the people around them, including those with special needs. When given some basic information, kids have the ability to almost completely overlook a disability and just play.

Learn from the differences

Although it’s good to focus on the similarities, the fact remains that there are differences, too. Rather than ignoring them, or letting the disability become the elephant in the room, help you child learn about how people with special needs do things differently.

In this area, a little extra effort goes a long way. For example, learning some simple signs so that you can better communicate with a child who is deaf (and uses sign language) will be much appreciated, and it’s a great opportunity for kids to learn a new skill. Start with simple things, like, “My name is…” and go from there. My kids love the Signing Time video series which teach basic signs through fun songs.

When you explain disabilities to your children, be mindful of the vocabulary you use. Focus on what the person can do, rather than what they can’t. Instead of saying simply, “That person can’t hear,” explain, “That person is deaf. You know how you and I use our mouths to talk and our ears to listen? Well, they use their hands to talk and their eyes to listen. Look at how they’re watching each other. Isn’t that neat?” Keep things positive to show kids that having a disability is just a part of life for some people, not something to be afraid of or to pity. Disabilities aren’t weird or scary. They’re just a different way of living.

Always be kind

This is obviously good advice for interacting with anyone, not just people with disabilities, but people with special needs tend to be judged and excluded more often. Just like anyone else, kids with disabilities deserve respect and want friends.

Teach your children to show respect and not make assumptions about people with disabilities. For example, don’t assume that just because someone has a physical disability that they also have a mental disability. Even if someone does have an intellectual disability, it’s still important to treat them with kindness and avoid assumptions about what the individual can or cannot do for themselves.

Before helping someone with a disability, ask if they would like or need help. This shows consideration, but it avoids the assumption that they can’t do anything for themselves.

A little kindness can make a big difference. During his senior year of high school, my husband’s brother (with spina bifida) was invited to prom by a girl at school. For him, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I don’t know why she choose to make the night special for him instead of focusing on herself, but it meant the world to him.

The invitation doesn’t have to be something as big as prom, though. If your child is having a birthday party, don’t be afraid to invite a child with a disability. If you’re not sure about the logistics of including a child with special needs, ask. Call the child’s parent and simply say, “How can we make this work?” Most likely, the parent will have ideas of what can be done to make the party a success for everyone and will appreciate that you took the time to think of their child.

Encourage your child to reach out and befriend everyone around them, especially those with special needs who might be overlooked. If you ever see any bullying or unkind comments toward or about people with disabilities, make it clear to your child that those kinds of actions are hurtful and unacceptable.

The Golden Rule

Ultimately, I hope my kids learn to live the long-standing golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated. Treat everyone with kindness, friendliness, and respect. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and take the time to get to know people.

When we raise our kids with kids kind of mindset, we prepare them to see abilities instead of disabilities.

Some people were born deaf or blind or physically different. Some got sick. Some were in accidents. But how they came to be the way they are isn’t nearly as important as who they are and how our differences make us special.

Are you interested in learning more about teaching kids about disabilities? Here are a few more resources to help:

Smarter Parenting issue specific section

30 children’s picture books about disabilities

Disability etiquette

List of organizations for various types of disabilities

The National Association of the Deaf

Autism Speaks