Talking to your child about disabilities can help them gain a better understanding of why some people look, talk, act, or move a little bit differently.
It will help them become a more inclusive, empathetic and knowledgeable young adult. It can also help them understand themselves, peers, and family members who might have a disability.
1. Provide Education in a Matter of Fact Manner
Don’t try to convince your child that someone with a disability is just like they are.
Instead, acknowledge that they are a little different, but make it clear that just because someone is different, that doesn’t make that person bad.
Educate your child about disabilities in a matter-of-fact manner. Say things like, “The muscles in your uncle’s legs don’t work like yours. That’s why he has trouble walking.”
2. Explain How People With Disabilities May Use Adaptive Equipment.
Talk to your child about how people with disabilities may use adaptive equipment to assist them.
3. Point Out Similarities
Make sure you don’t send the message that people with disabilities are completely different from everyone else. Point out things a child with a disability has in common with your child.
4. Learn About Disabilities Together
There’s a good chance you won’t have all the answers about someone’s disability.
Researching a disability together can help you show your child how to educate himself on unfamiliar conditions.
5. Prepare for Tough Questions
Your child may have some tough questions about someone’s disability.
Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know,” if you don’t have the answer. Or, try saying, “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you,” if you need some time to gather your thoughts before giving an answer.
A few tough questions you might hear...
Question 1: Why was he born like that?
You could give a science-based answer by saying, “When he was growing in his mother’s belly, his foot just didn’t grow.”
Or, you might give a spiritual answer that reflects your beliefs.
Is she going to live to be a grown up?
If your child asks a tough question about someone’s lifespan, you may want to focus on what’s being done to keep people healthy.
Say something like, “I don’t know. But doctors and scientists are working hard to find a cure.”
Question 3: Will they ever be able to walk?
There’s a good chance you might not know someone’s prognosis.
So you might say, “I’m not sure, but I bet they're working hard along with her doctors to do the best she can.”
6. Teach Kindness and Sensitivity to Others
Unfortunately, there’s a good chance your child will overhear some unkind words used to describe someone’s disability, and there’s a chance your child will repeat those names.
Address unkind words right away. Explain to your child that such words are hurtful and it’s not OK to say them.
A few ways to respond in the moment...
"That's a great question. I don't know the right answer right now either, and it's okay not to know everything. Do you want to find out together?"
"There was a time when those words were more common but they can be hurtful and make people feel less than or bullied, so not using them is a way to show respect and kindness."
"There are a lot of people with disabilities that we can see, and others we can't. We are all different on the inside. Try not to make assumptions and see the best in people, not just what makes us different."
7. Tell Your Child to Ask Before Helping
Youth often want to be helpers but they may not know how to do something that is actually helpful.
Or, they may put themselves in danger. So teach your child to ask before springing into action. Asking, “Is there anything I can do to help?” gives the other person an opportunity to practice consent, by expressing whether assistance is needed.
Modeling this with youth in your lives, by asking youth whether they need your help with something builds confidence, trust and their ability to advocate for themselves when in need of support.
Emotions are in everything we do, as human beings. When you’re talking about disability, try your best to separate negative emotions from talking about disability. If you say someone's disability is “sad” or “awful,” your child may begin to think disabilities are sad, bad and pitied when in reality they are not.
1. Some people are born with disabilities.
Make it clear that sometimes, babies are born with disabilities. But at other times, people develop disabilities later in life.
2. People with disabilities aren’t sick.
Explain that a child with cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy isn’t sick. You don’t want your child to think he might catch a disability.
3. There’s nothing wrong with people with disabilities.
Show your child how to reach out to friends and family for support. Explain when, how and why you've done it in the past and why it worked for you. Men are 3.7 times more likely to commit suicide than women (source). Setting this example early can help them overcome challenges later in life when the stakes become high.
4. Physical versus cognitive disability
A physical disability doesn’t mean someone has a cognitive disability. Sometimes, youth may assume someone with a physical disability may also struggle to communicate or may not be smart. Make it clear that just because someone’s body moves, and interacts in the world differently than you, doesn’t mean their brain, their intelligence, or awareness is impaired.