Talking to Kids About Disability and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named
Last week, we posted videos on how adults can talk about disability with other adults. This week, we’d like to talk a bit on how to create meaningful conversation about disability with kids.
We recently came across this AMAZING post on how to talk to kids about disability. This is a topic that often comes up in our trainings, as kids have a lot of questions. Sometimes it can feel awkward to answer them. Here is some advice from a parent of a child with special needs. Whether you have children of your own, or whether they are campers or students, we hope that this answers any questions you may have. This article will help us all move forward in talking productively to kids about disability and creating inclusive communities everywhere. Thank you to Mary Evelyn and Kristi for sharing this post with us! Check out the original posts here and here.
When my son Simeon was seven-months-old, I took him on a stroll through our local toy store. The place was almost empty, but as we rounded the corner, we bumped into a woman and her husband. They leaned over and looked at my son as we passed. He giggled. They waved hello and told me how cute he was. But near the end of the aisle, we passed the woman’s son, an eight-year-old boy. He glanced down at Simeon. His jaw dropped. He looked confused at first, then nervous. He went to his mother, standing a few feet away, pointed to my son, and said with confusion, “What IS that?”
My son has spina bifida and he breathes with the help of a trach, which, if you’re not used to seeing it, can be a bit surprising.
I saw the mother’s eyes brim with embarrassment. And her face turned stop-sign red as she glared at her son and spat out, “Don’t. Say. Anything.”
And I felt terrible– like my little boy was shameful somehow. Because he has a disability, and disabilities should not be spoken of.
Kind of like Voldemort.
Can we talk about Voldemort for a second? He is one bad dude. He’s so freakin’ scary that if you even speak his name, all horrors might rain down upon you. The kids at Hogwarts knew better than to mess with that can of worms (except for Harry Potter since he’s brave– and also a hero– NBD). Just like we teach our kids in the real world, it’s best not to talk about bad things.
Bad things should be kept quiet.
But disability isn’t bad. And I’m sure that the woman at the toy store doesn’t think my son is a menace of Voldemort proportions. Still, pointing out our differences makes us uncomfortable. We don’t know what we’re allowed or not allowed to say about disability. So we prefer to say nothing.
The problem is that our children are still learning the rules. They see difference in the world, and they ask questions. They see difference, and they speak it. They see difference, and they point their fingers. All we can do is react.
And our reactions send a message to our children. Our reactions tell them how to feel about the differences they see.
Would we reprimand or hush our children for pointing out a woman who has blond hair instead of brown? Probably not. Because it’s okay to have blond hair. But what are we telling our kids when we reprimand them for pointing out a person in a wheelchair or a person who is blind? We have to help our children to be comfortable with differences. We can’t treat disability like Voldemort.
So, when our children go all finger-pointy on us, here’s my advice:
When your child is the finger pointer:
- Stay calm. I know it’s embarrassing. I know it’s awkward. But seeing you stressed over the mention of someone’s disability could make your child feel that they’ve done something bad by bringing it up. Know that it’s normal for kids to ask questions– or even point and stare. Parents like me are used to it.
- Be open to discussion. No need to shush or remove your child from the situation. Try to calmly answer their questions and remember that “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer. When the boy at the toy store asked his mother what was going on with my son, I wish she would have felt comfortable saying, “Would you mind if my son asked you a question about your baby?” Like all parents, people who have children with special needs like talking about their kids, and most of us enjoy raising awareness, too.
- Lead by example. Do your best to talk to your kids about differences– not just disability. Try not to use words that might imply that disability is sad or bad, like “poor thing,” or “something is wrong with him.” If your child says something hurtful like, “That person is funny looking” you can talk to them about using polite words when they see someone who is different.
When your child is the one being pointed at:
- Stay calm. Remember that your reaction sends a message too. Little good will come from lashing out or reprimanding a stranger’s child. The last thing we want is for children to stay away from our kids for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.
- Be open to discussion. Answer questions if you feel comfortable. If not, redirect the conversation to what your children might have in common– Do you like video games? My son loves to play them too!
- Consider the intentions more than the words. Most of us have been in the special needs community long enough to pick up on what words are okay and what words not okay to use when discussing disability. Remember that most people do not live where we live, but their intentions are good. I dislike when someone asks “What’s wrong with your son?” but shutting them down will only halt what could have been an eye-opening conversation.
Remember that we’re in this together. Whether your child has a disability or your child is typical, we’ve got to give each other some grace, take a deep breath, and let go of our fears.
Be brave. Be a hero. Be Harry Potter.
–Written by Mary Evelyn, who has a son with Spina Bifida and who writes What Do You Do, Dear?
Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.
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