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How to Have the Talk…about Disabilities

Parenting a child with a disability changes the way you view life. It can lead you to places you never thought you’d go. For me, it’s lead me to become an advocate for my child and other children with disabilities. A problem that I see far too often is the disconnect between children with disabilities and their “typically developing” peers ***. 

If you’re not a parent of a kid with a disability,  you may be wondering, “What are you talking about?!”

This. 

Recently a friend’s five year old daughter attended her first ballet class. She wears leg braces to help her walk- no big deal! Unfortunately, as she excitedly began her class, she encountered a peer who rudely told her that not only could she not wear those to dance, but that she couldn’t dance. You may be wondering, “What 5/6 year old would say that?! How mean!”  Sadly, scenarios like this occur far too often to kids with disabilities. 

When my daughter Livy was 3 years old, she received her first wheelchair. My excitement at seeing her proudly gain some independence was subdued as I began to dread the looks, the whispers, and the loud questions from outsiders. I wondered when I would have to confront someone staring or get a rude question from a stranger. Sadly, it didn’t take very long. A few weeks after she got her speedy, hot pink wheelchair with light up wheels, we got our first rude comment in the most unexpected place: school. 

On the second week of school, as Livy and I passed a mom and her young daughter, I heard, “Mom! Look! That little girl is in a wheelchair!” 

I felt that everything around me blurred as I waited for the mom’s answer. 

“I know! Isn’t that so sad?!” replied the mom. 

I looked down at my very happy girl and was thankful she didn’t hear the terrible lie that had just been said. I think back now, and I know exactly what I should have said. But at the time, I simply rolled her to her classroom. 

After this incident, I posted a plea to my friends on Facebook about how they react to questions like these, and I was blown away by the amount of comments and messages that I received from friends. Most of them said, “How can I talk to my kid about disabilities?” Or “I showed my child a picture of Liv, and we talked about her using a wheelchair.” Many friends realized that their child had never seen another child using a walker or wheelchair before. It was then I realized that I needed to help others learn how to talk to their children about differences. 

I think the best advice I have for other parents is to use any staring or questions your child has as a teaching moment. Because it’s just that, an important teaching moment. Don’t hush them or walk them quickly away. When your child asks why someone looks different, uses a wheelchair, or even is acting “strange,” remind them that everyone is different. Being different is not a bad thing! As Dr. Seuss once said, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” Our world would be a very boring place if we were all the same! 

Here are some examples of how to answer curious kids' questions: 

  • Child: “Why does she have a walker?” Parent: “She might need it to help her walk. Why don’t you go ask her about it?” 

  • Child: “Mom! Look at that girl in the wheelchair!” Parent: “I know! I love her light up wheels! You should go say hello!” 

  • Child: “What’s wrong with him?” Parent: “Nothing is wrong with him. Everyone is different. Why don’t you go introduce yourself?” 

  • Child: “Why is she wearing braces on her legs?” Parent: “I think they are to help her walk. I like that they’re princess themed. Why don’t you go ask her who her favorite princess is?” 

Parents, let’s face it, this may not always be the most comfortable or natural thing to do, and honestly, it can be embarrassing. But, teaching your child how to talk with my child and others with disabilities is important. 

*** I’m not necessarily a fan of using the phrase “typically developing peers,” but it’s a verbiage most special needs families hear often. 

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