The other day, I was out with my 4-year-old son when he saw a man in a wheelchair. Of course, he had a million questions.
But the one that stuck in my head was, “Why does he look different?”
I explained to him as best as I could that perhaps the man had an accident and was only in the wheelchair for a short time until he got better.
Or perhaps he was born that way… which led me to explain to my son how people don’t look the same, i.e. we are all born ‘different’ and unique and that’s ok.
We don’t often realise it, but kids notice things we wouldn’t imagine they would — like my son noticing the man in the wheelchair, for example.
When it comes to people who look or behave differently to what is the perceived norm, kids, in that brutally honest way they have, may ask insensitive questions. They may behave insensitively too.
Have you ever seen a group of kids making fun of a person with a disability because of the way he or she walks or talks? Have you ever heard them teasing or calling a person with a disability bad names?
This is often the result of kids not fully understanding why some people might be unique in their own way.
Because of this, we (parents, teachers and caregivers) have the very important task of educating our children about how to respect and care for everybody, including people with disabilities.
Here are 8 ways you can do this:
1. Emphasise that being ‘different’ is not a negative thing.
Instead of teaching your child to feel sorry for a person with a disability, it’s more important that you teach them that the world is full of different people, and that’s ok.
2. Always ask before helping.
It’s wonderful to see a child who instinctively helps another person — more often than not, you’ll think that the child’s parents have done a great job in raising him or her.
However, when it comes to a person with a disability, do tell your child to always ask before helping him or her. This teaches them to appreciate that person’s independence and, in effect, teaches them respect.
Letting kids know that people with disabilities can do things for themselves is a huge lesson in itself.
3. Never play with or pet guide dogs
Most kids are automatically drawn to dogs. However, when it comes to guide dogs, it’s very important that parents teach their kids never to try and pet them or play with them.
These dogs are doing a very important job and distracting them could be hazardous to the person they are ‘working’ for.
4. Socialise with people with disabilities.
Your kids obviously look up to you and emulate what you do. So if you have friends with disabilities, be sure to invite them to join you both in daily activities and special occasions.
Similarly, if there are kids with disabilities in your child’s school/preschool, make sure you include them in birthday parties, playdates and the like.
This way, you’ll be teaching your child the very important lesson of ‘inclusion’ — including everyone in activities, regardless of a person’s abilities.
5. Be aware of how you react around a person with a disability.
If you, as a parent or caregiver, stare at, laugh at, act nervously around or ridicule a person with a disability, then it’s a no-brainer that your child will also behave in a similar way.
So try and put those feelings and that behaviour aside for the sake of your kids. If you treat everyone with respect, then there’s an almost 100% chance that your kids will do so too.
6. Teach kids that people with disabilities can be awesome too.
Whenever possible, let your kids watch movies or read books that put a positive spin on disability. This can make a huge difference to how they perceive it.
Some good books are Arlen, Cinderella’s Magical Wheelchair and Mama Zooms.
For movies, Miracle in Lane 2, Dragon Tales, I am Sam and Like Stars on Earth are great choices.
7. Respect their privacy.
Treat a person with a disability the way you’d like to be treated — and teach this valuable lesson to your child.
People with disabilities are entitled to the courtesies you would extend to anyone… including their personal privacy.
While it’s ok to ask appropriate questions from a person with a disability, it’s equally ok that they choose not to answer them.
8. Don’t get angry with your child because he or she is curious.
While it’s wonderful that many parents want to make sure that their kids don’t offend people with disabilities, getting angry with your child because of their questions and curiosity is not the way to go about it.
The last thing you want is for your child to feel shame, guilt or embarrassment when in the company of a person with disability.
The key then is to try to answer your child’s questions as rationally as possible.
Parenting is such a huge responsibility. Ultimately, as cliché as it may sound, we are responsible for how the next generation will turn out.
So teach your child empathy, kindness, respect, and admiration for all people — regardless of their abilities, race, gender, or sexual orientation.
Teach your child that ‘disability’ does not mean ‘inability’.
Parents, how do you handle your child’s questions about people with disabilities? Tell us by leaving a comment below.