7 easy tips for discussing disability with your child
This article first appeared on cpsn.org.au on 22 December 2022
Discussing disability with a child can often feel like a nerve-wracking conversation for some parents – but it really shouldn’t.
As someone with a disability, I’ve often caught parents nervously pulling their children away if they stop and stare at my legs or openly ask the question, “Why does she walk with a cane?” or “what happened to that woman?”
Unfortunately, we feel the need to treat disability with such secrecy when people with disabilities make up twenty per cent of the population. I recently invited other CPSN members to share their thoughts on how the approach this conversation, and this seems to be a common phenomenon – here’s what one of our staff members had to say on the topic: “It's not the kids’ reactions that bother me. It’s the parents’ reactions, if that makes sense, e.g. The child staring, knowing they’re curious but dragging them out of the way because they don't know how to explain it to the child?” She adds, “I say I was born too early, so I get to use a wheelchair and crutches to get around - with a smile, and I haven't had a negative response.” People with disabilities are great at explaining our situation because we’ve had to have some version of the conversation for most of our lives. It’s important to remember that just because this topic of conversation seems foreign or taboo for you doesn’t mean it’s foreign to the person on the receiving end of the question. I have five nieces and nephews between the ages of three and nine, so I’ve recently had to familiarise myself with this conversation. Children can be blunt in how they broach the topic. A few months ago, I went to a family function; one of my nephews is about five years old and had not seen me in some time. During that period, his language and social skills underwent a massive transformation. So, when he saw me, he first said, “What happened to you?” – as I said, children can be blunt. I said, “When I was born, I was very sick, and the part of my brain that controls my walking was damaged, so I use a cane to help me move now.” The description is short and sweet, it doesn’t overexplain technical terms, but it also imparts a little knowledge on my nephew – which is great because I want my little niece and nephews to be as bright as possible. I’ve had some version of this exact conversation with almost all the children in my family now; not only did it not have to be awkward – I believe it strengthened my bonds with them because they were able to process what was going on with aunty. I firmly believe that “disability” should never be skirted around or treated like a dirty word. Sometimes I notice people try to deny the disability’s existence or emphasise that the person is “the same as everyone else.”
I’m not entirely sure this is the best policy. It tends to ignore the challenges that disabilities can realistically present to an individual. Still, it also suggests that a disability is inherently bad or wrong.
The more straightforward you are, the more successful you will be in normalising disability for the child. I believe this is more likely to help them embrace people with disabilities in the future. Don’t just think of it as a singular conversation. Think of it as a blueprint for how your child will interact with people with disabilities for the rest of their lives. You want your child to be kind and considerate to that person and have a reasonable understanding that depending on the person’s diagnosis, they might have specific limitations or need adjustments.
So here are seven easy steps for discussing disability with a child.
Don’t deny or ignore the disability’s existence – refusing to acknowledge a disability could be confusing for a child, or worse, could frame it as being wrong or bad.
Keep the language simple and age-appropriate – you don’t have to use complex medical jargon, mainly if the child is young. Keep it symptom-specific, e.g. “This person has trouble moving their legs, so they use a wheelchair to get around.”
Avoid using terms like “Wheelchair bound” – the person isn’t trapped in their chair, no more than you are bound to your car or bicycle.
Don’t over-romanticise the disability – don’t feel like you must call us ‘special’ – we’re not, and we know we’re not!
Never scold a child’s curiosity – remember that when your child sees someone with a visible disability – it might be the first time they’re seeing someone who looks like that, so it’s perfectly okay for your child to be curious.
Be mindful of your behaviour – remember that if you try to drag your child away from an interaction with a disabled person, we’re observing your behaviour more than we keep your child’s behaviour
Knowledge is power – yeah, it’s a cliché, but when you give your child a chance to enquire about disability – you’re giving them the gift of information and making them that little bit more informed about the world around them and the people in it!