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10 Things Every Parent Should Teach Their Kids About Disabilities

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Parents are all over the board when it comes to how they teach their kids about disabilities. Some scold their kids when they ask what’s wrong when a person with a disability passes by, and other parents are totally cool with letting their kids run around and approach us at will.  No two parenting techniques are alike.

But there are a few things that are repeated. From telling their child to always look away or giving them a generic viewpoint of people with disabilities, mistakes on how to talk about us are abound. Since even the most well-meaning parent can accidentally flub up, here are 10 ways to help give your kid a leg up on how to think differently about disabilities.

1) Answering “Why can’t they walk?”

One of the most common questions kids ask when they see someone who uses a wheelchair is this, “Why can’t they walk?” Kids are naturally curious and have no filter, which are without question one of their best and worst qualities. If your child is younger, saying, “They just have an owie,” can be enough.

If they’re older however, just be honest. “I don’t know, baby, but most likely it’s because their nerves,” is all you need to say. My 6-year-old niece is a great example. She’s still too young to understand the concept of a spinal cord injury, so I just tell her my legs just don’t listen to me anymore, and she understand it completely.

But what’s great is once they fully understand, fear is erased.

2) Don’t get mad when they get curious.

While it’s great so many parents want to make sure their kids don’t offend us, which for some kids is a legitimate concern  when it comes to sensitive people with disabilities, getting angry with your child when they ask questions about our disability should be avoided. Fear, shame or embarrassment is not what you want your kids to feel in the presence of disability. I hear kids ask their moms about me all the time. Cutest thing ever.

3) Being different isn’t a negative thing.

Instead of putting a “sad story” spin on disability whenever they inquire about someone, saying something along the lines of, “But it’s ok.” “The world is full of people who are different,” is vital. We all get around in our own ways. As long as we get there is the important part.

4) Always ask before helping.

A lot of well-meaning parents like to teach their kids to help us whenever possible. But it’s just as important to teach them to ask before helping so they can appreciate our autonomy, and respect us as such. Teaching your child to automatically jump to our aid is kind, but it can make it harder for them to see us as a person apart from the chair. Letting them know we can do many things on our own is a huge lesson for kids.

5) Our wheelchairs aren’t oversized strollers.

Seeing a wheelchair as our “legs” is another big lesson to drive home. Kids can come up with some hysterical words when referring to a wheelchair – a mini car, a wagon, a “what’s that” (my personal favorite), but don’t let them go on thinking of our wheelchair as a stroller. Kids like to, but driving home the notion of a wheelchair as being an empowering object, not one that symbolizes helplessness, can make a huge impact.

6) Be careful how you react yourself.

It’s no secret kids are sponges and instantly sense whatever mom or dad is feeling. Feeling nervous, awkward or afraid around people with disabilities will only make your kids feel exactly the same way. Try to put those feelings aside in the best interest of your kids. Respond positively and calmly when encountering a person with a disability and they’ll do the same (and hopefully into adulthood too).

7) A 10-second stare is ok.  I promise.

When it comes to staring, kids get a “Get of Jail Free” card. At least that’s how I feel about things. As long as it’s not a long drawn out stare that is, which in that case you should tell them, “Looking is ok, but not too long.” I say this because it always saddens my heart whenever I see a parent scold their children for looking at a person with a disability for a brief moment. Kids are shiny new people learning about the world. Their innocent glances are 100 percent ok.

8) We aren’t in pain.

When I told my niece, “My neck has an owie. That’s why Aunty Tiffy can’t walk,” her first response was, “Well does it hurt?” Kids are just learning about the human body and the double-meaning of words too. By saying “I hurt my neck,” she heard “hurt” and equated “pain.” While some of us do have some awful chronic pain, letting your kids know a disability doesn’t necessarily equate to physical pain can take a definite load off their mind.

9) We can be awesome too.

Whenever possible, showing your child a movie, book or play with a positive portrayal of disability can make a huge difference. Sad movies about skiers who break their necks, then fall in love with a pilot who ends up dying in a crash is not such a good movie to show. They need to see us involved, having fun, even dare I say cool.

While it can be hard finding children’s books with a positive disability spin, they’re out there. Arlen, Marvelous Mercer,  Saddle Sore, Cinderella’s Magical Wheelchair and Mama Zooms are some good reads (click for more). And a few good kids movies or shows to check out in the same vein include Miracle in Lane 2, a movie with a young adult in a wheelchair who dreams of winning trophies like his brother, Dragon Tales, a cartoon with a character who uses a wheelchair and Pinky Dinky Doo, an animated series with one of the main characters having a friend with a disability. **(Win one of these books by sharing this article on Facebook, google + or twitter, but make sure you tag or mention us so we know its you).

10) Our chairs aren’t glued to our butts.

I’ve always felt every child needs to see someone in a wheelchair get out of their wheelchair just once. Maybe onto a couch, or even better – into a pool or onto a motorcycle – leaving their wheelchair behind, just so they can see we are a person first, wheelchair-user second.

The first time my niece saw me get out of my chair and onto the couch was at Christmas when she was 2-years-old. Her eyes widened and she was deliriously happy when she saw me get out. I think she saw it as breaking free (I don’t think she thought it was even possible until that point).

Parenting is a huge responsibility, and molding your kids into hopefully soon-to-be awesome adults is the end goal. I’ve met a handful of these adults who were raised in a disability-positive environment and they have been some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. If your child ends up being one of these very people, you’ve done a parenting job well done.

And remember, these above tips are mine alone. Not all people with disabilities may agree on these recommendations. Whenever possible, ask people with disabilities in your life for any input or tips. There’s knowledge to be learned from everyone.

How do you teach kids about disability?

Related: 20 Things Every Parent of Kids with Special Needs Should Hear

More From This Author: 10 Correct Ways to Interact with People with Disabilities

See Also: 9 Disability Related Charities You Should Never Support or Donate To

Related Content: A Life Lesson About People With Disabilities For Parents Everywhere

Photo credit: greekadman / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

**The Fine Print: Four (4) winners will be announced August 16 at noon EST. Each entry will be assigned a unique number then chosen using random.org.

26 Comments


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About Tiffiny Carlson

Tiffiny Carlson is a writer and quadriplegic from Minneapolis. She has a C6 spinal cord injury from a diving accident when she was 14 years old. Writing and breaking stereotypes is her passion. She's been the SCI Life columnist for New Mobility magazine since 2003 and is the founder of the longtime disability site, BeautyAbility.com. Her work has also been featured in Penthouse, Playgirl and Nerve.com. And when she's not writing, Tiffiny loves to cook and practice adaptive yoga.


26 Responses

  1. avatar MC Mobility says:

    Parents really should understand their children with disabilities. They should know the ways on how to manage and take care of these disabled persons. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Keep it up!

    wheelchair handicapped

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  3. avatar Taewon Kook says:

    I am a person with disability and a student. Thank you for this wonderful and insightful article. I will share this with my friends!

  4. avatar Jeff Ellis says:

    Thank-you… I have three boys and always want them to be inquisitive but never want to overstep my boundaries. Thank-you for this insightful message!

  5. [...] Vor ein paar Tagen las ich einen schönen Text von Tiffiny Carlson. Sie formulierte “10 Things Every Parent Should Teach Their Kids About Disabilities“. Dieser Post ist eine freie Übersetzung ihres Textes, den ich an der einen oder anderen [...]

  6. Your article assumes the parent in question understands and accepts disabilities. When, in reality, a good majority of parents are fearful of the disability themselves. Parents, who fear something, are ill-equipped to provide positive and appropriate responses to the child about that issue, here is is disabilities.

    Explaining- “…it’s most likely their nerves.” Really? How many adults understand the etiology of disabilities? You expect them to be able to explain the unknown with a pseudo-medical reply.

    Curiosity- Parental responses are not to prevent offending. Rather, they are a demonstration of their own fear.

    different- Again, fear of the unknown brings on the belief that this difference is a bad thing. This prevailing tenet is a cornerstone of preventing acceptance. It is further exacerbated by the “person-first” argument, which adds yet another “difference”.

    helping- be glad when a parent is trying to teach “helping” behavior. If they do not, how many not-yet-disabled, but needing assistance, will go without? “sorry, I can’t open the door for you. I was taught to wait and see how much you can handle on your own”.

    wheelchairs- again, do the parents understand a wheelchair is not an “over-sized stroller”?

    reacting and staring- can’t ask a child to do something they are watching you do yourself.

    pain and chair glued- how many not-yet-disabled people believe you you must be in pain, and don’t know the chair has not become a part of you?

    awesome- not going to promote something feared.

    You expect behavior that, for many, is contrary to their own belief system.

    • avatar Morgan says:

      You are so right. I do not hesitate to engage children when I see them react to me. Often I will see the parents visibly relax as they listen to my explanations.

  7. [...] med handikap. Dessvere er denne blog bare på tysk, men da finds en tilsvarende innlegg på engelsk . Vi har ja 5 år bodd sammen med psyksisk utvikklinghemmede voksne, i et leve -og [...]

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  9. avatar Sheri Thornton says:

    Thank you for this well written and thoughtful article… I am the daughter of a full hip amputee and as a young child thought all moms had one leg. I used to get mad as a child watching others stare at my mom but now, as a mother with my own children I realize how amazing an opportunity my children have, My nine year old doesn’t even flinch when he sees a wheelchair or some one missing a limb. He is very brave though, thanks to grandma, and often walks right up and asks if there “arm” got sick and quickly informs them that grandma only has one leg. Your comment on the chair being “glued to your butt” made me not only laugh but reminded me of a funny story. One day at a department store my mom and I were shopping… she was on her crutches and wearing a long dress. A little girl approached us slowly and looked up at my mom and said “hi”. My mother said “hi” back to the little girl who then replied… ” I never met a person who had one leg in the middle”. After 30+ years of being a full leg amputee I guess it is safe to say your stance changes on crutches to balance your weight and I must say from about three feet away mom’s leg was in the middle. ;D

  10. [...] I know this firsthand, having been a witness to, or the actual target of someone with a disability being violent. I’ve had to intervene when I saw a severely disabled guy beating his wife, not [...]

  11. [...] See More: 10 Things Every Parent Should Teach Their Kids About Disabilities [...]

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  14. avatar Cheryl Bianchi says:

    Thanks for the insightful article. As a parent to a newly paralyzed mostly adult (20 at time of accident) son, I’M still learning how to deal with it all…still struggle with vocabulary, in fact. (correct words seem to be in constant flux!). Think your points are excellent and useful.

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  16. [...] explains each lesson in greater detail at her post, Ten Things Every Parent Should Teach Their Kids about Disabilities. Not only will you find links to resources, but you’ll also get to enjoy Tiffany’s [...]

  17. avatar Jolene Philo says:

    Tiffany,

    Thanks for this relevant and important post. It impressed me so much, the post was reviewed at my website with a link back to this page for the parents of kids with special needs who follow DifferentDream.co, Here’s the URL: http://www.differentdream.com/2013/09/10-things-to-teach-kids-about-special-needs/

  18. [...] Related Content: 10 Things Every Parent Should Teach Their Kids About Disabilities [...]

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