6 Tips to Talk to Your Kids About Disabilities

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by: Lindsay Hutton
Whether it's a classmate who is on the autism spectrum or a loved one with muscular dystrophy, your child probably has someone in her life with a disability that she might have questions about. No matter what the situation, it's important to be prepared and to address your child's curiosity about disabilities as openly and honestly as you can. The following tips can help you be prepared to talk to your child about people with disabilities when she comes to you for answers.
Young happy boy in wheelchair
It's OK to Notice
Kids, especially young ones, are naturally curious, so when they see someone with a disability, their first instinct is to ask about it. If you see your child staring at someone with a disability, take the lead and start a conversation, but avoid a detailed explanation or a lot of emotion when explaining it. A short and matter-of-fact description will answer your child's questions while showing her that the person has nothing to be ashamed of.

For example, if you see a child with muscular dystrophy in a wheelchair, you can say to your child, "I see you looking at that little girl in the wheelchair, and you might be wondering why she needs it. Some people's muscles work a little differently, and her wheelchair helps her move around, just like your legs help you."

Try to keep your explanations positive. For example, explain that hearing aids help others hear and wheelchairs help others move around, instead of using a negative connotation (he can't hear, she can't walk, etc.)

Happy mother and young son hugging
Use Respectful Terminology
Children are like sponges and absorb everything they hear. When talking about someone with a disability, remember that words can actually hurt so it's important not to use terminology that would make someone feel left out, or imply that they are "less than" anyone else. Avoid using derogatory terms like "cripple," "retarded," or "midget," and instead, use terms and phrases like "wheelchair user," "little person," and "he has a learning disability." Don't use a disability as a way to describe an individual. For example, instead of saying "autistic child," it's better to say "a child on the autism spectrum."

This tip sheet from Mobility International USA is a good resource to learn what terminology to use when describing somebody's disability.

Two happy sisters with child with Down syndrome
Emphasize Similarities
It's important that your child learns that someone with a disability is still the same in a lot of ways — he still has feelings, likes to have fun, loves his family, and has a favorite sport. Take care to separate the person from his or her disability by talking to your child about how he and the person with the disability are similar.

For example, maybe your child and his neighbor who has Down syndrome both love to watch football and go swimming. Perhaps they are the same age, or maybe they both have a pet fish. Talking about similarities will show your child that having a disability does not define a person, much like your child's physical characteristics don't define him.

Two sisters with brother in wheelchair
Teach Understanding and Empathy
Children are all similar in many ways, and they are also all different in their own ways. Instead of simply telling your child that a person with a disability can't do something, talk about that individual's strengths, too. Teach your child to look for strengths instead of just focusing on weaknesses. It's important for him to learn that just because someone can't do something, or struggles in one area, it doesn't mean he or she doesn't excel in other areas. Ask your child how he would feel in somebody else's shoes, and how he would want to be treated — and then teach him to treat others the same way. Learning empathy early on is an important life lesson.

For example, if your child has a hearing-impaired classmate, instead of focusing on the fact that he can't hear, also ask him what his classmate is good at (math? running?), and then talk to your child about his own strengths and what he finds to be difficult. Help him see that all humans have their own strengths and weaknesses, and that he should help those just as he would want others to help him in areas with which he struggles.

Concerned mother talking to smiling daughter
Address and Condemn Bullying
Children with disabilities are easy targets, and are more prone to bullying from other children, and even adults. Talk to your child about why intentionally hurting another child's feelings is wrong, and teach her to apologize when she has done that. It's important for your child to know that anyone, even someone who looks or acts different, has feelings just like she does, and deserves to be treated nicely and with respect.

Go over this "Bullying Stops Here" printable pledge, and have your child sign it as a pledge that she won't bully others, and will try to help if she sees someone else doing it.

Seeing eye dog
Treat Their Devices with Respect
Teach your child to treat medical devices, such as canes, wheelchairs, and service dogs, with respect. Make sure she understands that the devices are there to help the person who needs them, and that they are not toys.

It can be tricky when your child sees a service dog in a public place and wants to pet it. In this situation, give her a matter-of-fact explanation for why she can't. For example, you can simply say "That dog isn't a pet — his job is to help that person see. He's working right now, so let's not distract him."