When today’s parents were growing up, exposure to children with disabilities was limited. Many students with special needs were in different classrooms or different schools. Today, children with intellectual, emotional or developmental disabilities are in the same public schools and classrooms as their typically developing peers. Lacking that exposure early in their lives, contemporary parents may not have an understanding of disabilities, and may feel inadequate about speaking with their children about classmates with disabilities.
If your child has questions about these differences, do not worry. It is natural to be curious. Here are tips on how to respond:
Confront The Curiosity
If you observe your child staring at someone with a disability, discuss it. “I noticed you were looking at that man. His legs work differently from yours; the wheelchair helps him get around.” If your child asks you a question, answer in a matter-of-fact manner. If you do not know the answer, be honest and suggest you research together to find it.
Different But The Same
Be sure to discuss what people with disabilities can do, not just focus on what they cannot do. Discuss what they may have in common with your child—similar hobbies, hair color or favorite food, for example. “He may be different from you because he needs a hearing aid to hear, but he is the same as you in many ways, too. Just like you, he likes going to the park. He likes to play with cars; and he also has a sister.”
When your child comes home and discusses a peer who was having a difficult time at school, ask what that child is good at and what is difficult for that child. Remind your child that he, too, is good in certain areas and feels that other areas are challenging. Focus on connection versus separation.
Remember that your child learns how to respond to others based on how you do. Be mindful of the terms you use to describe those with disabilities. If you hear people referring to others as “retarded “ or “dumb” or “crippled,” explain how hurtful these terms are. Do not use the word “normal” to describe people without disabilities. It suggests that those with disabilities are abnormal. Differentiate the person and the disability (the child who has autism instead of the autistic child).
Demonstrate understanding when speaking about others. “Sometimes she may lose control and start yelling and screaming in class because she has a difficult time finding the words to say what she thinks and feels.” Be firm around the idea that just because someone looks, talks or behaves differently does not make that child inferior.
Instead of saying “she cannot see” emphasize the positive. “Just like your eyes help you know what’s around you, that cane helps her know what’s around her.”
“Just like you use your words to express yourself, he is using sign language to express himself.”
Read books and introduce television and movie programming that include people with disabilities. Set up play dates or join programs that include children with disabilities. The more access and experience your child has with a diverse group of people, the more comfortable your child will be with differences.
Each person has strengths and challenges, and this can be a point of connection when discussing disabilities. Using inclusive and positive language can impact the way children think about disabilities and the way they treat those around them.
Graziella Simonetti is a parent educator for EAC Network’s Long Island Parenting Institute and works as an early childhood social worker for the New York City Department of Education. She holds an advanced certificate in parent education from Adelphi University and is a NYSPEP credentialed parenting educator. Simonetti is a former kindergarten teacher.