How To Talk To Your Child About Disabilities

To create an inclusive and respectful society, children should be taught how to interact with individuals who are different. For that, we all need to open our hearts and minds to their abilities.

By Suchitra Seethapathy

How To Talk To Your Child About Disabilities

Ritu, a three-year-old preschooler, notices a lady at the bus stop using crutches and exclaims, “Mummy, look this aunty has only half a leg!”

Ritu’s mother is mortified. She drags Ritu away from the spot as fast as she can. Although her mother's reaction leaves Ritu feeling confused, she is quick to realise that she has done something to upset her mother. 

This can happen to any of us, parents. At some point or the other, most of us have faced situations where our child has said something inappropriate and embarrassing about individuals with different abilities. During such times, we need to remember that our response will mould our child's view of the world.

For instance, if not provided an age-appropriate explanation, Ritu may get into the habit of staring at individuals who are different and treat them in a different manner.

Nalini, parent to a six-year-old with Down’s Syndrome recalls, “I was invited by my husband’s colleagues to a family get-together. There, I couldn’t help but notice that those around me were talking about us in hushed voices. My child was given sympathetic looks; other children avoided playing with him. At the end of a supposedly fun-filled day, all I received was charity and not acceptance.”

The harsh fact

What Nalini said is true to a great extent. Most of us avoid talking about or directly to individuals with different abilities. We often tiptoe around them. Such attitudes reflect the confusion or fear in our minds and echoes one of the basic principles of psychology, which is, 'We fear what we don’t understand'.

What would you do?

Children are curious by nature and ask questions when they see something different. They exhibit the same behaviour when they see individuals who are differently-abled.

So, if your child saw someone with different abilities and began asking you questions about the individual, what would you do?

Give your child honest, informative, and age-appropriate answers to her questions. This is also necessary to create an inclusive society, where our children will view different abilities as just another aspect of life.

How to address your child’s curiosity about different abilities

  • Teach that it’s okay to be different: Just as identical twins have unique traits that make them different from each other, no two individuals are alike. Hence, there are those who use a hearing aid, a wheelchair to move around or a mobility cane to find their way. However, despite their different abilities, all these individuals enjoy the same things we all do — for example, playing in the park or listening to a friend telling stories. Together, why not read books with characters who possess different or special abilities. Your child will understand that it is okay to be different.
  • Encourage inclusion: Many schools in cities are now becoming inclusive. This means they have children with different abilities studying alongside other children. However, sometimes, teachers in these schools come across parents who raise objections against such policies. They fear that their child may pick up ‘unwanted behaviour’ from children with special needs. This is completely untrue. In fact, studying with someone with special abilities helps children become more empathetic to the needs of others. So, make your child understand that he will not change simply by playing or spending time with those with different abilities.
  • Address curiosity: If your child's curiosity gets the better of her and makes her inquisitive when you are in the company of people with special needs, don’t react in shock and reprimand her. Instead, tell her gently that the individual in question has different skills, abilities and needs; that he has his own unique ways of coping with the world.
  • Stamp out the stigma: Many of us are uncomfortable being around individuals with different abilities and try to avoid them or instead, stare at them. When you notice your child staring at someone with different abilities, do not tell him to avoid looking fixedly or move on. Instead, encourage him to go ahead and strike a conversation with the differently-abled individual. Talking to differently-abled individuals can help your child understand that they also have the same emotional and social needs as the rest of society.
  • Be matter-of-fact: When your child asks you questions such as, 'Why is that boy in a wheelchair?', be matter-of-fact. Do not respond with statements such as 'He didn’t drink his milk, so he has weak legs' or 'It’s God’s will'. Such answers only help to scare or confuse children. Alternatively, you can say, 'He was born a little different and he can’t walk, so he uses a wheelchair to move around'.
  • Be sensitive in your use of language: Do not use offensive or derogatory words like ‘retarded’ or ‘crippled’ while talking about those with special needs. For example, a child with autism can be referred to by name instead of ‘that autistic child’. Try not to label someone, as labelling creates a sense of prejudice in the minds of children. There are several movies or magazines where we can find insensitive jokes about differently-abled individuals. Teach your child that such utterances can be hurtful. By showing sensitivity, you model such behaviour for your child. 
  • Talk about what connects us all: Try to emphasise to your child how each one of us is more similar than we think and that having different abilities does not make anyone ‘strange’. It means that differently-abled individuals also enjoy the same sports, movies and treats. Your child will understand that everyone is similar and yet, different in their own ways; and that it is not ability or disability that divides us.
  • Inculcate awareness: When your child shows readiness to learn or is curious about something pertaining to the differently-abled, help him understand. Explain what this entails by using simple and clear language. However, do remember to not use the term ‘normal’ when referring to those who are not differently-abled. This may imply that the rest of the world is ‘abnormal’.

Besides teaching your child about being kind to individuals with different needs, it is important to foster the thought that ‘Charity is not acceptance’. True acceptance comes when inclusion becomes a way of life for then, different abilities will then be considered just another aspect of living together in a society. When children with different abilities attend an inclusive school, they develop sensitivity and emotional maturity. Your child may gain a very valuable friend when you teach him to accept others as they are.

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