By Claire Steep
Children have an uncanny knack for asking awkward questions in the loudest of voices. At precisely the wrong moment you might be asked, “Why is that woman missing a leg?” or “How come that man has blotchy skin?”
The truth is, young children aren’t conditioned to filter what they say, much less where they say it. They’re also innately aware of and fascinated by the differences they see between themselves and others. Recent research has shown that babies as young as six months stare for longer at photos of adults with a different skin colour to that of their parents. They are responding to and processing “difference.”
Let’s look at how experts suggest we answer a child who spots and comments on a disability. Questions about a teenager using a wheelchair might warrant a reply such as, “She uses the wheelchair to go places the way you use your legs.” Use positive language that focuses on similarities not differences. This not only helps children understand, but also prevents them from seeing just the disability. For instance, your child might have a friend with Down syndrome.
The presence of Down syndrome might be a difference, but both children may have pet fish or enjoy the swings at the park.
It’s also important to stress that living with a disability doesn’t mean the person can’t do things, or do anything well. A child with low vision might experience difficulty finding their way, but be good at math or building block towers. Or your child might become best friends with a person with epilepsy, once they understand that seizures won’t stop their friend from flying kites.
Teach children not only to offer support but to listen, be patient, respect privacy and recognize a desire for independence. It can be useful to look to the parent of a child with a disability for guidance. Generally speaking, parents are happy to answer children’s honest questions and explain the situation in their own words.
Kids with disabilities are, after all, kids—and no two kids are the same.
Claire Steep read English at St. Andrews University, Scotland, and recently completed a communications internship for Abilities magazine.
Books to Promote Inclusivity and Understanding
My Brother Sammy is Special
Sammy doesn’t do any of the things other kids do; he doesn’t take the school bus or play with his brother at the park. Sammy has autism. This frustrates his brother until he starts looking at the world Sammy’s way.
We’ll Paint the Octopus Red
Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen and Pam DeVito
Six-year-old Emma anticipates the birth of a sibling, planning
the adventures they will have together. When Isaac is born with Down syndrome, she and her father reassure each other Isaac can still have all those adventures.
Look What We Can Do
Brittany Adkins and Kristen Bell
Nolan and Teddy have adventures as they cruise around on Nolan’s power wheelchair. A light-hearted and humourous book that shows no obstacle is too great to overcome, despite the new obstacles they face.