Talking with children about disabilities

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Sidewalks are now made without curbs at the corners and laws prohibit putting up new buildings that are not accessible to everyone. We are now aware of the extra large stalls in bathrooms and parking for people with disabilities in every mall.

We take these improvements in our way of life for granted now. We assume that our toddlers and preschoolers also take these changes for granted and don’t notice the person in the wheelchair or leaning on a walker. That is, until our very curious 4-year-old blurts out, “What’s the matter with him?”

What do we do or say at that moment?

How is the child feeling?

During the preschool years, children’s bodies are changing rapidly and it’s the time when they become fully aware of them and what they can or cannot do. It’s also a time when they imagine that almost everything in their lives seems to happen because of something they’ve said or done or even thought.

The early years are the time when children are putting together ideas about their world and about themselves. They ask, “How am I the same as other people and how am I different?” “What control do I have or not have over what happens to me?”

Many differences are common in the child’s world- such as size, sex, voices, skin color and clothing – that parents take for granted. Meanwhile children are meticulously watching and gathering clues from Mommy and Daddy about what is safe to talk about or even approach.

When differences are not so common it’s not only our little preschooler who begins to “notice” and worry, but the adults as well. When the man with Cerebral Palsy shops at the local grocery store our three-year-old notices. She notices differences and worries about catching what he has. She also gets a clue from Mommy who is deliberately not noticing and continues to shop.

Furthermore, the question she has asked receives a quiet “no” nod or Mom whispers “Shhhh. That’s not nice to ask.” Now this little girl’s anxiety doubles, for suddenly her question is unacceptable and mommy’s message suggests, “This really is not safe to talk about!”

The question she might have asked was whether she would lose her ability to walk should she happen to brush by the man or whether she could catch what he has. She needs to be reassured that it’s all right to ask questions and to be given simple, clear answers.

What do we do?

We know our 4-year-old’s question has been over-heard and we are embarrassed. We certainly don’t want to hurt the man’s feelings and our mind races over a thousand answers. We often settle for silencing more questions and escaping into the next aisle. Often we settle it by telling our child that asking questions like that hurts the man’s feelings.

How do we feel? What do we know?

We’ve said that our preschoolers take cues from our behaviors. Many of us have not had significant experiences with people with disabilities and really don’t know what to say. We feel sorry for the mother pushing a developmentally delayed 5-year old in a stroller and we busy ourselves with shopping or pointing out the colors on the cereal box.

We haven’t talked with anyone with Cerebral Palsy at length so don’t really have the words to describe this to our children. Often, the last thing the mother with the curious little 3 year old would think about is the message her own anxiety gives to her daughter. The last thing any of us would want is to give the message that someone with a disability is to be feared and avoided.

What can we say?

We want our little girl to be respectful and not hurt people’s feelings. We don’t want her to be frightened by people with disabilities but we really don’t know when or how to answer her questions.

Perhaps it helps to think first about the person with the disability. Nothing she says will be new to the person living with Cerebral Palsy or with a large facial birthmark.

We can also predict what our curious child might be thinking and the questions that might be asked before the situation occurs. “I notice you are looking very hard at the woman with the mark on her face. Does that worry you? Sometimes people are born with birthmarks. It is not anything you can catch. We can talk about it in the car after shopping.”

The important thing is to convey to our child that her concerns and the questions that follow are OK. If we haven’t anticipated the on-the-spot loud questioning, a simple answer can be provided. “I don’t know exactly why he is in a wheelchair but I know wheelchairs are the way people can get around when they have trouble walking or can’t walk.”

Sometimes, if you are comfortable with disabilities, you could even engage the person with the disability, “Perhaps this man can answer your questions about his wheelchair.” You might also offer to get something off a top shelf for him.

What is the message?

The important thing is our own attitude and awareness of the message we convey. We do not want to hurt people’s feelings.

Letting our child know this and that her questions can be answered later is very important. The reason that woman is, “so fat, so old, so bent over” is not something you want to discuss within hearing of the individual, but it can be answered simply when you are in another place: “Some people have a hard time when they are very fat. I think it hurts their feelings to hear people talk about it and we don’t want to do that. You can always ask me your questions later.”

Knowing when to answer the child’s question within hearing of the person with the disability and when to briefly defer the questioning is a hard call. We will be able to determine this better when we become aware of both our and our child’s understandings and reactions. Everyone understands things differently; we do, our children do – as does the person with a disability.

Image courtesy of Artur84/

Explore our kindergarten and preschool programs. For younger children, our parent/toddler program provides developmentally minded fun.


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