We’ve made leaps and bounds when talking to our kids about inclusion and diversity in the areas of gender, race, religion and much more. Do you know what’s often left out of those conversations about diversity?
The disabled community.
Although we’ve made tremendous progress over the last few years, we still have a long way to go in understanding the unique experiences of the disabled community–including ways to create a more accessible and inclusive world for everyone.
So how do we do that?
Parents have the ability to teach the future generation to view disability as diversity. By modeling empathetic, inclusive, value neutral behaviors that normalize disabilities–we teach our children that disabilities aren’t something to be feared, they simply are part of the world we live in.
I think the first step in talking to your kids about disabilities is to normalize them. People have different ways of living and moving around in the world. Just like someone might have blue eyes they also might need a walker to help get around. Disability is a normal part of the human experience and when we speak about it in a matter a fact way, we teach our kids that it’s simply part of the tapestry that makes up our diverse world. It’s not something that scary or frightening.
We were at the gym one time and a little guy ran up to Callie’s leg and pointed. He asked his Mama, rather loudly, why Callie had “that” for a leg.
His mama squatted down next to him so he could hear and said, “That’s called a prosthetic. It helps her walk just like you and me. It’s pretty cool looking with the leopard print right? If you want to you can go politely ask her if she can tell you about it because you are curious.”
It was perfect. One of the best interactions we’ve ever had honestly.
Because she normalized Callie’s disability with mindful language and she didn’t shame him for asking the question. Too often when kids do ask “what’s wrong with her” (as they invariably do because they are kids), the parents tend to get embarrassed and tell them to shush. I don’t know how many times we’ve heard that type of question and the parent either ignores the child, scurries them away, or tells them to be quiet. They tell the child they are being rude or shame them for their curiosity. Instead use it as a teaching moment. Shushing them teaches that disability is inherently shameful and not something to talk about.
Instead of scolding them, use the interaction to answer the questions in a straightforward manner. Teach them that their curiosity isn’t a bad thing. Say something very clear like “That man uses a wheelchair/cane/walker to move around the world.” The more open and honest dialogue we have about those questions the less they will appear taboo.
It’s also ok to tell your kids you don’t know. There have been times where we’ve heard parents try to explain about Callie’s disability using their own assumptions and they clearly are struggling.
A better way to do this would be to say, “I don’t know. Why don’t we ask if she’ll tell us about it?” This teaches kids a few things. One, it sets the narrative to speak with people and not about them. It also let’s the person with the disability to be the owner of their experiences and story instead of the abled person trying to share their assumed version. It also showcases that people with disabilities aren’t scary, unapproachable, or frightening.
Callie is always happy to answer questions from other kids in regards to her prosthetic. But by asking “Is it ok if we ask you a question?” the person gives her the option and control to share as much of her personal story as she wishes. Callie also has developed a very simple kid friendly way of explaining her prosthetic which takes away the nervousness kids tend to have when they see it. She usually includes something like “This is just the way I am” to help normalize differences and diversity. We also like to include something that the kids share in common–they both can run, play, go to the movies, or love ice cream. We want to share that even though Callie’s prosthetic is a big part of her identity and life experience it’s not the whole picture. She has a beautiful, full, vibrant life too–just like other kids.
I think the other key to talking to your kids about disabilities is to make it continuous. It shouldn’t be a one time conversation that you check off on your list. It’s something that should be woven into your every day life. Use media to do it–there are some phenomenal books, YouTube videos, movies, blogs, and TV shows that showcase diverse characters and inclusion. I think it also let’s you “prepare” for the conversation a little more than an in the moment encounter–allowing you to be more thoughtful and articulate with the discussion.
If you are able to start when they are very young, you can share how everyone has differences and it’s simply part of being human. You can help them humanize others around them, utilizing a balance of curiosity and respect. That can transition to being put into practice with your older kids–teaching them about the disabilities rights movement, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and current activism for inclusion and accessibility.
Ultimately, it comes down to frequent and ongoing conversations.
We can make the world a more fair, inclusive, welcoming and accessible space for everyone.
It starts with us.