Talking to Kids about Disabilities

August 5, 2015

How much time did your parents devote to talking about disability? My guess is that if your parents have “normal” ability, the answer is not much, if ever. If your parents had lots of open communication with you, I’m sure you covered a wide range of topics. But did they ever discuss ability with you?

Or did they tell you “don’t stare?”

I have this theory, that because a lot of us were told to not stare, we feel awkward around people with disabilities, often feeling the need to avert our eyes. We actively avoid having to interact with people with disabilities, should we make them feel bad, or put our foot in it and say something we shouldn’t. Instead, our interaction with people with disabilities might be sharing “inspiration porn” on social media. “Inspiration porn” is a term coined by the late Stella Young, and it means to objectify disability. Have you ever lowered your expectations of people with disabilities to say how remarkable it is they can even get out of bed in the morning to do everyday activities? That’s inspiration porn. Watch Stella Young’s definition in her own words in her wonderful TED talk.


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I consider myself an advocate for the disabled community. I like to argue that more than any other group in America today–more than women, more than racial minorities, more than the LGBT community–people with disabilities are marginalized. Perhaps it’s because people with disabilities have fewer advocates as we are all averting our eyes. (It’s important to note here that many people with disabilities also fall into another minority label as well. For example, being both a person with a disability AND a person of color can make accessing certain resources, etc, much more difficult.)

We all want to raise kids who are kind, considerate, friendly, and don’t purposefully exclude others. So how do we teach our children to be inclusive? How do we spark conversations about ability? Here’s three easy steps that we use in our house to talk to our kids about disabilities.

1. Model behavior

As with most parenting, modeling behavior is the best place to start. SCARY NEWS FLASH: your little ones are watching your every move (I’ve learned this the hard way on one or two occasions).

  • Think about how you treat people with disabilities.
  • Challenge your own beliefs about the disabled community.
  • Read articles, do research, and learn something new.
  • Stop viewing those whose ability is different from yours as objects of inspiration, or worse… objects of pity.
  • Don’t be weird or awkward when you encounter someone who is disabled, treat them like you would anybody else, because they are just people who don’t want to be defined by what their bodies or minds can or cannot do.
  • If you have the opportunity, make friends with someone who is disabled or who has a child with disabilities. We learn the most and broaden our perspectives when we do life with people who are different than we are.

2. Use your resources

  • When I saw Episode 133 of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, “Daniel’s New Friend / Same and Different,” I think I cried. It’s an excellent example of making a friend with disabilities and including them in play. It’s sweet and relatable.
  • Read these tips from PBS kids about how to illustrate the topic of “alike and different” to your kids.
  • Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare created a delightful picture book called “It’s Okay to Ask!” When I first heard about this book, I ordered it immediately. Stella loves it and asks for us to read it to her frequently. It’s familiarized my not-yet three-year-old with kids who use wheelchairs, tablets for communication, walkers, leg braces, and more. Of course, the main point of the book is how the featured children love the same activities that children without disabilities enjoy: riding bikes, going to the library, telling jokes, and dancing ballet.
  • This article, featured on What Do You Do, Dear? in September 2014, is another great resource for parents. Read it! It’s eye-opening, informative, and helpful.
  • “I won’t run your child over with my wheelchair” is another good one. This paragraph expresses eloquently how I feel, and really resonated with me:

“By allowing children to express their natural curiosities about bodily differences and disabilities, and encouraging them to accept and understand, disability becomes just another part of the world instead of something to be feared.” 

    • Find the nearest accessible/inclusive playground (use this awesome directory) and take your kids to play there.
    • Watch the Special Olympics, and the Paralympic Games when they happen. This is a great activity to do and can help you start easy conversations about ability, sportsmanship, athletics, etc

3. Teaching moments

Clay and I have been discussing disability with Stella from a very early age. Any time we would see a person with a disability, we would draw attention to them in a tactful way.

“That’s a wheelchair, Stella! She uses that chair to get from place to place. Some people can’t use their legs in the same way that you can or mommy or daddy can. So wheelchairs are really useful to move and play and go where she wants to go.”

I watch my toddler “play” as if she has a disability all the time. She may be young, but we have helped normalize disability for her. She doesn’t view it as a bad thing. She was 18 months old when I watched her take a couple sticks at the park and pretend they were crutches. Now, she rolls around the kitchen in her baby doll stroller as her wheelchair. She puts slippers on her feet and comes to Clay and I. “Ask me what this is!” she says. When we ask, she tells us “these are my braces, they help me walk.”


Should you be talking to your kids about disability, or is this a dialogue you’re having already? If you’ve already started this dialogue, what resources have you found to be helpful?

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By Kellie

Kellie is a redeemed woman pursuing vulnerability, color, and hygge. She loves to write, take photographs, play, and learn. She's a marketing specialist by day, a blogger at night... and a mom all the time. Kellie lives in Denton, Texas with her husband, Clay, and their young daughters.

6 Comments

  1. Reply

    Jess

    Thank you for this!

    My partner has MS and although I am only just broaching the subject of disability with our 2 and a half year old daughter, that one of the silverlinings of our situation is that she will have a deeper under standing of people with disabilities being …people! Her dad (my partner has a book from the MS society which she likes to have read some times, I can’t remember the name of it but it gently introduces an awareness of this particular condition in a child friendly format. Books can be a fantastic way to discuss issues and themes with little ones – I love them!

    I have a lot of guilt about our circumstance but our daughter is beautiful and refreshing and has a growing sense of empathy already. I have to look for the positives.

    1. Reply

      Kellie

      YES, friend! Thank you for sharing your experiences. I would love your insight and advice into any other books that might be good resources on this topic for both myself and my readers.

  2. Reply

    Nicole Anderson | Camping for Women

    What a brilliant post highlighting such an important topic and learning experience for not just our children, but all of us adults as well. The sooner we all get on the same page here, the better things will be for everyone. I just love everything you have included here, not the least of which are the wonderful resources you have linked to and I also enjoyed the video so much.

  3. Reply

    Heather

    You know it’s funny, even though my mother has a disability (clef palate, clef lip and a speech impediment) and we still never really talked about disabilities in my house.

  4. Reply

    Ally

    What a great inspiring piece! Thank you for this! I really enjoyed it!

  5. Reply

    Renee S

    I have worked in the mental disability field for quite some time, and my husbands family have run group homes for many many years. I love that you teach normalcy to your daughter! Most parents don’t even realize that children learn by example.

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