Talking to Children About Disabilities

Children are curious little beings. It’s incredible to watch as they learn about the world, growing more and more interested and asking more and more questions. Which is why it is not uncommon for a child to ask questions when they see something they might not have seen before, like another child their age who uses hearing aids or a person who uses a wheelchair. While children mean no harm, finding the right words to explain physical or developmental disabilities to your child can, at times, be challenging if not prepared.

At My Petsters, part of our mission is to ignite a conversation and build a community that teaches children about the importance of social consciousness through creative play. But we also know that we, as adults, have an important role to play in advocating for social consciousness, too. Below we’ve shared some tips about how to talk to your children about disabilities, with the hopes that all children can grow up in a world that is more accepting and understanding.

Use Proper Language

Children shouldn’t be defined by their disabilities. Consider using “people-first language,” which is the standard terminology adopted by the Special Olympics. For example: “a person with disabilities” is more appropriate than “a disabled person.” In addition, a person has intellectual disabilities. Avoid using is suffering from, afflicted with, or is a victim of” intellectual disabilities.

Keeping the conversation casual and factual can help, too. If your child asks why another child has hearing aids, you might consider saying, “Not everyone hears the same way, and these hearing aids help her hear.”

Emphasize Strengths

It’s not uncommon that disabilities focus on what a person can’t do or has difficulty doing. A child may have a disability that makes it harder for her to learn in school, but she is also a kind person and a good friend. We should teach our children to focus on the strengths of an individual as a way to build one another up, as opposed to focusing on weaknesses or struggles. We all have them.

Point Out Similarities

Help your child understand that he or she isn’t that different than a child who has a disability. Both children have feelings, as well as things they like and dislike. What else do they have in common? Do they both love puppies? That’s great! Do they both like being outside in the sunshine, or making new friends?

Drawing on similarities can help children understand that despite any differences, we all have feelings, dreams, likes and dislikes.

Bullying is Wrong

Remind children that bullying is never acceptable. Sometimes children learn derogatory terms from other children, like the r-word. Help them understand that these words are both extremely hurtful and unacceptable. If they see bullying at school, encourage them to be a friend to the child being bullied or seek help from a trusted adult, like a teacher or the principal.

Ask Questions

If you don’t have the answer to one of your child’s questions, one of the best ways to learn about others is simply to ask, in a polite way. Sometimes it helps if you as a parent approach the other parent, with your child following your lead. This shows your child how to be open as well as kind and respectful to others.

Seek Resources

More and more children’s books and TV shows are bringing awareness to children with disabilities and serve as an excellent source for starting the conversation with your children. We’ll Paint the Octopus Red by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen or My Friend Isabelle by Eliza Woloson are two children’s books that have characters with Down syndrome.

In addition, there are many resources available on the internet. This sheet is helpful for appropriate terminology, whereas both you and your children can take a pledge here to work toward more inclusive schools, workplaces, and communities.

These are just some small steps toward creating a more inclusive world for our children. Is there anything we missed or advice you would like to add? Or is there something your child taught YOU that you’d like to share?

Please leave any comments below, or feel free to mention any resources you’ve found valuable to help keep this important conversation going.

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