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A Life Lesson About People With Disabilities For Parents Everywhere

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keep-calm-its-only-a-wheelchairSince becoming a quadriplegic three years ago, I have quickly learned that people don’t know a whole lot about the disability community. When you’re uneducated about something, I think it’s normal to feel uncomfortable with it. Maybe even afraid of it.

While out in public I often get stares. People will even avoid the isle I’m in at a store and quite often jump out of my way as if I’d run them over. Keep calm. It’s only a wheelchair!

Wheelchair users don’t exactly have the luxury of blending in when they want to. Sometimes I wish I could, but when I’m out and about I personally try and make an effort to smile and wave when I roll by a child. Giving a child a good experience may ultimately make them more understanding and comfortable. The problem is though that some parents don’t know how to react to their child’s curiosity.

Here are few insights about how you can desensitize your child around people with disabilities.

While rolling along at the mall the other day, a kid stared at me while standing with his mom in a store. It wasn’t a scared or judgmental stare, but clearly he was just curious. He said something to his mom about my wheelchair and I was compelled to stop and say hello. I smiled and asked the little boy if he wanted to see something cool.

I have spinners on my wheels so I made sure to give it a good spin for him. His eyes lit up and he asked excitedly if he could try. Well of course I said yes. He was totally diggin’ the wheels.

His mom seemed to think it was pretty cool that I stopped to let him get a closer look. She told him to tell me thank you as I rolled away and waved goodbye. But just as I was starting to leave he yelled for me to wait. I turned around. ‘What is it buddy? Did you have a question you wanted to ask me? He paused for one second but then said, “No I just wanted to give you a hug”. He then ran up, wrapped his little arms around me and gave me a sweet peck on the cheek. My heart melted! I wasn’t exactly used to such awesome encounters with kids.

That little boy’s mom handled it perfectly. She didn’t tell him to be quiet when he said something about my chair.

What parents don’t realize is that when you hush your child in a situation like this, you’re essentially telling them that this is something they shouldn’t ask about. It becomes a taboo subject. If your kid asks you “why is that person in a wheelchair?” Use this as a teachable moment. Simply tell them “their legs don’t work as well as they could so they use wheels to get around.” If I hear a parent answering their child’s question I might stop, smile and let the child see the chair and ask me a question if they would like.

Related: 10 Things Every Parent Should Teach Their Kids About Disabilities

But if I see a parent hush their child, it actually makes me feel really uncomfortable. I would’ve never turned around to talk to that cute kid had his mother hushed him. And our awesome interaction would’ve never happened.

When I’m rolling around in public, it’s really common for people to jump out of my way even if I’m still like 10 feet away. Now I’m not talking about nicely stepping aside. I mean they literally JUMP out of my way. It’s super awkward and in those moments I’m reminded of how people view me in my chair. Often times these people have their children with them. They will grab their child and quickly pull them out of the way.

I know they are trying to be courteous but the reality is your child knows you’re treating me differently. You don’t do that for someone walking around so why would you for someone on wheels?

It’s probably because you yourself are a little uncomfortable around something you’re not used to encountering. I totally get that. But try to be aware of how your reaction impacts your child. You are their protector.

I see the faces on these children and a lot of times they go from smiling and being care free to being very timid and scared. It definitely sends the wrong message. There’s nothing wrong with giving me space if I can’t get by, obviously! But your child can tell when you’re uncomfortable.

It’s really simple actually. Just lead by example. If you act comfortable around someone with a disability, your child is likely to follow your lead. Children will have questions and its ok to answer. If someone with a disability overhears, realize that most of us do not care. We’d much rather you answer your child’s question than to hush them and jerk them away.

It’s important that your child knows a few things about people who may have a disability. Make it clear that someone with a disability is nothing to be afraid of. You are either born with a disability or you acquire a disability through an accident. Disabilities are not contagious.

But here is the big life lesson. They need to realize that everyone is different and that’s ok. Some differences you can see more than others. Some people have different likes, dislikes, personalities, cultures and so on.

All of these differences should be accepted and embraced. So when you are out and about with your child just makes a point to treat us like you’d treat anybody else. No need to stare, ignore, avoid or jump out of the way. I’m just on wheels instead of feet. The fact that I use a wheelchair is only one characteristic about me. I’m willing to bet I have more in common with you than you even know.

More From This Author: Rachelle Friedman aka ‘Paralyzed Bride’ Takes a Stand: You Can’t See From Where I Sit

See  Also: How to Rise Above the Challenges of Change


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About Rachelle Friedman

Rachelle Friedman is a c6 quadriplegic who was paralyzed at her bachelorette party in 2010 during innocent horseplay by the pool just weeks before her wedding. Her story went international and has been featured on the Today Show, CNN, HLN, MSNBC, VH1 and other various media outlets. Since then she has become a motivational speaker, blogger, ambassador for the spinal cord injury community and author of her new book "The Promise." Rachelle and her husband Chris currently reside just outside of Raleigh, N.C., and are looking to start a family in the near future.

21 Responses

  1. [...] in life than us. We are just another ho-hum human, but sitting in a chair on wheels. We’re really not as different as you may think. [...]

  2. avatar Bubbie Jacobs says:

    very inspiring, as usual

  3. avatar Holly says:

    I know what you mean about people leaping out of the way! My son (12) is blind and uses a cane. People part like the Red Sea and snatch their children out of the way. He uses it in a very controlled manner, he doesn’t thrash it around and he shortens it up in crowded situations, no one’s shins are in danger. I do my best to smile as we pass and say “It’s ok!”

  4. avatar Jim says:

    I have a 6 year old grandson and a thirty year old daughter, his aunt, who uses a wheelchair due to spina bifida. One day we were playing with legos and I made a lego wheelchair, poorly I might add, and asked him if he could guess what it was. My hint for him was that he knew someone who used one all the time. His third guess was “wheelchair.” When I told him that was correct he responded by asking “Who?” I said “Aunt Jill.” He said “Oh yeah.” How cool that he only sees her, not the hardware!

    • avatar Amanda says:

      I too can relate to Jims situation cause I also am thirty and have Spina Bifida with three nephews that only see me and not the hardware

  5. avatar Joan Eisenstodt says:

    I have invisible disabilities – and because I often use a scooter, I am viewed “strangely” and questioned about what could possibly be wrong with me. Like those who use wheelchairs, I’m looked over or through; people don’t stop to open doors or assist. Another great resource is the Invisible Disabilities Assn. – and their booklet they’ve done.

  6. avatar Laura says:

    Thanks for writing this. My daughter wears orthopedic braces because she has spina bifida. Being a young teen, she is sensitive about being stared at. I keep trying to make her see that when little children stare at her or ask questions, it is out of genuine concern and not rudeness. They often think she “hurt her legs”, because they think the braces are like casts for broken bones, something they are more familiar with. I hope that eventually she can become comfortable enough with her differences to be a great ambassador like you!

  7. During the 13 years I used a chair, I made a point of smiling, waving and saying ‘hi’ to kids. If I’d see one in a stroller I’d go over and say (with a big smile) “My stroller is bigger than yours is!” This always made the parents laugh – the kids usually just stared in astonishment, but at least they weren’t scared. I know what you mean about people jumping away, and I especially liked the comments about people looking away very deliberately. I’d be rolling along, saying “Look up, Look up, LOOK UP!” to get them to stop staring at their i-pods or feet, because they were about to land in my lap. Everyone would be very apologetic, but I’d point out that my foot-rests and my whole chair are made of steel, and if you walk into me, it’s you who is going to get hurt first!

  8. avatar Mike Bates says:

    Very true, my disability is about 80% invisible and all though I do not have to ride a chair, I have mobility issues. What gets me when at the grocery store and walking down as isle, is the overweight parent who grab their kids and tell them to stay out of the way like I might spaz out at any minute.
    Dear Parent:
    True, I may be a little different than you but I challenge you to a fitness and weight lifting challenge and will win.
    I wear my disability and fitness proudly on this tone body, where the scale is the devil and challenges you daily, that is more disabling and scary in my eyes and in the end I will still be here for my kids. Where/how deep will you be?

  9. avatar Beverly V Theil says:

    The “jumping out of the way” is not just for those with handicaps it can also extend to their families. A dear friend had a multi-handicapped baby who regrettably had a life-span of less than a year. After her return to work after her daughter’s birth she had colleagues in her department suddenly go into other professors offices (even when they were empty) and into empty classrooms rather than pass her in the hall and not know what to say. In one memorable case a fellow professor grabbed the nearest doorknob and escaped by going into a broom closet.

    We need to educate people from all walks of life to the fact that people are still people, and parents are still parents, even if they do not meet someone else’s standard of “normal”. Everyone needs to remember there is someone who is evaluating you behind your back and probably doesn’t think you are “normal”!

  10. [...] Read More From Rachelle Friedman: A Life Lesson About People With Disabilities For Parents Everywhere [...]

  11. Oh I love this story about the hug. Everything is well said here. Thanks for sharing.

  12. [...] Related Content: A Life Lesson About People With Disabilities For Parents Everywhere [...]

  13. [...] More From This Author: A Life Lesson About People With Disabilities For Parents Everywhere [...]

  14. [...] See Also: A Life Lesson About People With Disabilities For Parents Everywhere [...]

  15. Thanks for writing this Rachel. I wrote this one a few weeks ago which I hoped would help parents of kids with disabilities lighten up a little if there was staring or behavior they didn’t love by passers by… as parents of kids with disabilities we can set the tone, be welcoming, help break down barriers if we welcome interactions like you do.


  16. [...] A Life Lesson About People With Disabilities For Parents Everywhere [...]

  17. [...] A Life Lesson About People with Disabilities for Parent’s Everywhere [...]

  18. [...] A Life Lesson About People With Disabilities For Parents Everywhere [...]

  19. [...] A Life Lesson About People With Disabilities For Parents Everywhere [...]

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