Opening up the discussion about disabilities with children is something most parents wouldn’t think of doing unless a child notices someone with a disability.
There are a whole host of disabilities out there and not all disabilities are visual. According to the World Health Organisation, 15% of the world’s population is disabled. With such a high percentage of individuals, it’s important to talk to children about the visual and non-visual disabilities that are out there.
Children are very inquisitive and are not afraid to ask questions about things that they do not understand. Every parent wants to bring their child up to be polite and courteous and they can often be alarmed when a child is forthright when asking questions to a disabled person. Children often don’t have any preconceived ideas about the differences in each person, but it’s still important to educate children that people with a disability are like everyone else.
Six things to remember when discussing disability with children
- Start the conversation: Chances are if you ask a child whether they’ve noticed a disabled person before, they will identify a person in a wheelchair. Opening up the conversation will set the way for future interaction with peers, family members or strangers who have a disability. Failing to talk to your child about disability may encourage them to model the wrong sort of behaviour. Talking about the different types of disabilities and how to appropriately refer to people with a disability will reinforce proper etiquette.
- Teach respect: Tell your children to be respectful. Don’t invade somebody’s personal space or make assumptions about what somebody wants, just ask them if they need assistance. Someone will indicate if they need something from you, even if they are non-verbal. Most people will be grateful you offered, but sometimes they may not want assistance. For many wheelchairs and powerchair users their wheelchairs are an extension of themselves. It’s important to tell the child to never grab, push or even touch someone’s wheelchair without permission, as this is an invasion of personal space. However, it’s okay for the child to ask questions about wheelchairs or other mobility equipment, as they are often intrigued and curious about wheelchairs
- Teach them about animal companions: Some wheelchair users are accompanied by an animal companion, in most cases a dog. It can be very tempting for a child to go up to a guide animal with the intention of stroking it. However, it’s important to tell your child that when the animal has its work jacket on, it is in fact working and shouldn’t be disturbed without permission. Whether it’s a guide dog, hearing dog or any other kind of animal assistant always ask the owner’s permission before touching the animal.
- Be inclusive: It’s important to speak directly to disabled people, don’t just direct the conversation to the people they are with. More often than not, the person with the disability can speak for themselves. Teaching your child these behaviours will also encourage them to be more inclusive to peers in their class that might be different to themselves. Teach them that being disabled is not a bad thing and that it’s important to include others in conversation or school friends in play, despite their differences.
- Allow children to be inquisitive and curious: Don’t be embarrassed if a child has an interest in someone with a disability and begins to ask questions. Your child is just trying to understand and in most cases, the person with the disability will be happy to answer any questions that the child may have. Don’t discipline or discourage inquisitive behaviour, instead encourage your child to understand and appreciate disabilities.
- Lead by example: Children quickly absorb behaviours from their parents, peers and teachers. Leading by example is a great way of showing your child how to behave with a person who has a disability. When a child is exposed to your communication with someone who has a disability, they will more than likely mirror your behaviour themselves when in a similar scenario. If you are unsure how to approach this topic then learn more about disabilities together.
Having an open discussion about disability with your child is important for their understanding and awareness. Your child is going to be exposed to a lot of disabled people throughout their lifetime, so it’s important to be as open as possible. Being open about the topic of disability will help your child understand some of the fundamentals of disabled people. – Let’s open up the discussion.