6 ways to talk junior about someone’s disability

Use these strategies to foster an attitude of acceptance in your child when he interacts with disabled people.

Your child will meet someone with a disability sooner or later. It could be a classmate in a wheelchair, a cousin who’s on the autism spectrum or an uncle with Down syndrome.

Disability is all around us, so it isn’t something we can or should avoid. The first step to being a more accepting society is to remove any form of stigma on people who act or look different.

“Difference frightens people ― we are built to understand ‘same’ to be part of a tribe we feel comfortable with. And difference, either consciously or unconsciously, bothers us,” notes social and behavioural therapist Katy Harris.

“The good thing is that there’s an element of compassion to our discomfort, too, because we wish for things to be ‘typical’ for that person as well. We have an inner sense of wanting everyone to feel included.”

The difference between someone who responds well to a disabled person and someone who doesn’t, is how often they’re exposed to these people and situations. “Children who have a disability in their family for example, often display higher degrees of active caring. They have both the empathy and the confidence to act on it,” adds Harris.

In case you’re wondering, children as young as 3 or 4 are conscious of differences ― that someone walks, talks or acts differently from them. At this age, however, it’s fuelled by curiosity rather than caution.

“Asking about aspects of disability is ok as is referring to it and including it. “You’re not required to ‘be careful’ when asking about it, as long as it’s not done with any judgement.”

“Many children are curious, but their parents somehow, and subtly, give signals that that curiosity is not okay,” Harris points out. “So, a tension is formed between what they want to know and what they are allowed to know.”

Harris adds that perhaps teaching children about disability as part of their early education would help to cultivate a sense of empathy and inclusiveness from a young age. It will surely beat tiptoeing around the subject ― something that often irritates a person who has a disability and his or her family.

“Asking about aspects of disability is okay as is referring to it and including it,” adds Harris. “You’re not required to ‘be careful’ when asking about it, as long as it’s not done with any judgement.”

Approaching the topic of disability is never easy, but it’s best to be prepared when your child comes to you to clear their doubts. How well you respond to junior’s questions can determine what your child takes away from that conversation and how he or she responds to differences and disabilities in the future. Here are ways to tackle the topic…

Answering your child’s questions on disability

Junior will have plenty of questions after meeting a disabled kid or adult. According to Harris, here are appropriate responses to the questions you can expect.

Question: Why doesn’t that person look or act like me?
Answer: Why should they? Isn’t it great that the world is full of differences ― in the plant kingdom, amongst animals and even with humans? What a wonderful array of humans there are!

Question: Is that person’s disability infectious? Will I get it?
Answer: We are all our special selves and that difference isn’t like being sick. It isn’t a “bad” thing like germs, it’s just a different thing. You don't want them to be fearful of you, so it’s better to be brave about the difference you see in them.

Question: Does having a disability make that person different from me?
Answer: Have a look ― what do you think? What limits do you think that person has? You know everyone has their limits, and we can talk more yours and mine later. But let’s think about what they might be able to do well even with those difficulties.

“We all have bits of “wrong” in us ― spots and scars on our body and mistakes that we’ve made.”

Question: Why doesn’t he or she like to talk to me?
Answer: It’s not that they don't like you. I think it’s more that they haven’t had enough practice or enough encouragement to reach out and chat. Perhaps they are afraid as well?

Question: Is there anything wrong with me? Am I like this person?
Answer: We all have bits of “wrong” in us ― spots and scars on our body and mistakes that we’ve made. We should look around our family and see what bits of “difference” we can find, because no one is perfect. Some may have little things that are different about them, while others’ are bigger and we can see and know it. It’s called DIS-ability, but perhaps it should be called DIF-ability, because it is different from the majority of people?

Question: Why happened to him or her?
Answer: Most people are born with a disability. We all come out different in small ways, but this person was made different in a much bigger way. Maybe that difference is there, so we can learn to be kind and considerate?

Question: Why does he or she go to a special school?
Answer: Special schools are made to suit a special issue someone has and it’s better than regular schools. By going to a special school, the students feel more comfortable being together – like in a team – and their teachers know how best to help them. We want everyone to get the best out of the school they go to, so some schools are better suited for this issue than a regular school.

6 strategies to explain disabilities to your child

Tip #1 Answer their questions directly and honestly

Don’t hide any information you think will be important for your child to understand that person’s situation even better, especially if it’s an obvious one. If junior asks why someone is sitting in a wheelchair, instead of saying something like, “So, that they can rest more,” be more open and say, “Perhaps their legs don't work so well, or they were born with no legs”. “Sometimes, it is just a question of saying what you see,” adds Harris. “But be careful of the terms you use. Stay away from words like autistic, handicapped or retarded person.” Instead use clear, respectful language when talking about someone with disabilities.

Tip #2 Be matter of fact don’t go into the emotional details of the person’s condition

Stick to the facts when answering your child’s questions. You won’t know if the disabled person is sad or in pain, so if junior does ask about their emotional state, it’s best to be honest and say you’re unsure as well. It’s also a good idea to answer all of your child’s immediate questions in the moment, then return to the topic later and ask, “Did you think of any more questions about that?”. “This proves openness but also lets children know that the door to answers remains open,” adds Harris, who also suggests visiting the library to pick up books on disability that will be useful in answering more questions.

Tip #3 Explain that people with disabilities are not sick

This is best done by explaining your child’s own shortcomings with acceptance. “If we can say, I’m not as good as daddy at playing ball, but I might be more patient at waiting for you to finish the game, it offers the idea that our strengths and weaknesses are variable,” says Harris. Junior will then be able to use the same logic on a person who may have a bad leg and walk with a crutch, but could possibly be better at something else.

“Overcoming fear requires courage and staying apart from disability isn’t going to teach much and will reinforce caution.”

Tip #4 Explain that being different is not a bad thing

The person who can’t walk might be extremely patient at waiting. The person good at walking might be hopeless at sitting around waiting. The person who has limited sight is usually more able to differentiate sound, but when you have typical, sight you might overlook the small sounds. “Embracing variety ― in the foods we eat, the places we visit, and the world we see, will reduce rigid views and the fear they create,” notes Harris. “It will also provide the flexibility that the next generation will need to cope with an increasingly changing and challenged world.”

Tip #5 Allow junior to interact with the disabled person, even if they might ask something inappropriate

Learning is risk,” says Harris. “Overcoming fear requires courage and staying apart from disability isn’t going to teach much and will reinforce caution.” If you want your child be more comfortable around different people, there really is no better way than to allow them to mix and mingle with these special people. Don’t worry too much if they say something inappropriate, it’s part of the process of becoming more familiar with someone.

Tip #6 Teach your child how to respect disabled people

Your child picks up on everything you say or do. So, if you model restricted self-protective views, that is what your child will do as well. “It’s great for children to hear that adults are not 100 per cent certain about their views and that views can change,” says Harris. In other words, model the behaviour you want your child to have. In order to respect disabled people, junior needs to learn compassion, tolerance and open mindedness. You can easily teach them these qualities in your day-to-day parenting. For example, if your child has made a mistake, instead of yelling or shouting at him immediately, look at why that was wrong and make some allowance for the human traits that prompted it. “This is how you build compassion,” explains Harris. “However, if you apply narrow rules with little reasoning or forgiveness, you will be adding to the intolerance in the world.”

Photos: iStock

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