“Why do you talk like that?” I heard the question come from behind me as I helped another child in the Sunday school class. “It’s just the way I am,” I heard my sister-in-law wisely answer the curious boy. My sister-in-law, Kara, was born with Cerebral Palsy. She was helping me in the Sunday school classroom that day when one of the kids noticed her speech was different. Kara has been taught to answer, “It’s just the way I am” after years of questions about her differences.
Our kids have grown up around their beloved Aunt Kara and accept her as she is, but there came a time when each of them have asked about Kara’s disability and why it makes her different. Chances are, at some point, your child will meet someone at school or in their community that has disabilities. It is normal for children to have questions about people who are different, which means parents should be prepared to answer their questions in an intelligent and appropriate way.
Here are some tips to get the conversation started:
Everyone is different, but the same. Everyone has unique gifts and challenges. No two people are the same, and this is a great thing because diversity makes life interesting and fun. While we are all different, everyone has things in common, too. All people, including people with disabilities, want to have friends, be shown respect, and have the desire to be accepted. Encourage your child to embrace the differences of others and find common ground, too. If your child is interested in a popular TV show, book, toy, or game, chances are a person with special needs is interested in these things as well. Ask a person with disabilities what they love to do or what they’re interested in; I am guessing they would be happy to tell you.
Types of disabilities. Some disabilities are obvious, and some are not. Some people may need a walker or a wheelchair to help them move around. Others may have a cognitive (thinking) disability that is not visible. Explain in simple terms to your kids that people struggle with different things and may need a little extra help from a physical tool (like a wheelchair) or help from others. Explain to them that people can have impairments with sight, hearing, walking, speech, cognitive, or a variety of other things. It is important to let your kids know that just because someone is in a wheelchair, it does not mean they have a cognitive disability. Also, explain to them that disabilities are not contagious and they are not going to “catch” the disability. These things may sound obvious to adults, but children process things differently and many kids have these questions.
Name-calling is never okay. Emphasize that people with disabilities have feelings, too. Name-calling is hurtful, disrespectful, and is a form of bullying. People with disabilities need others to stand up for them when they cannot stand up for themselves. Encourage your child to tell an adult if kids are teasing another child with a disability. Your child can be an example to others by being kind and respectful. Parents can set an example by using positive language and behavior toward others as well.
A note about ‘rude’ comments. Kids are curious and love to ask questions. Many times they will speak exactly what is on their mind, without thinking about whether the comments will be hurtful. This can be very embarrassing to parents. So what do you do if your child blurts out a rude and embarrassing comment? Start by answering calmly and matter of factly. If, for example, your child says, “Why is that boy in a wheelchair?” Simply answer, “He needs it to move around. Why don’t you say hello to him?” If the child is reluctant, say hello to him yourself along with something like, “John likes trains. Do you like trains, too?” If the person accompanying the child responds, follow their lead. It is always better to treat others as you would like to be treated than to hurry away in an embarrassing situation. Later, when you are at home, ask your child if they have any other questions about others with disabilities and reinforce the value of treating everyone equally.
My sister-in-law, now 38, has been asked many questions about her disability over the years - some rude and some just curious. She has learned to handle them well because she knows that just like anyone else, she has challenges to overcome and successes to celebrate. Kara loves watching movies, dancing to music, and taking care of animals. She loves eating candy, pizza, and tacos. She is fun to be around, and loves to get out and explore new places. People with disabilities are just people; sometimes this simple fact is all kids need to know.
Sarah writes from her home in suburban Kansas City, and is a mother of six children.
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