Talking to children about disability
Practical advice from Shane Burcaw, author of Not So Different, who lives with a form of muscular dystrophy. Shane has used a wheelchair for over 20 years, and has had plenty of experience with curious children!
A few ideas to keep in mind when discussing disability:
It's great if your child is curious about disability! Although they may not express it, their curiosity might be driven by a classmate who has a disability. Being positive and supportive about their questions will help your child develop the understanding that disability is not taboo.
Try to use person-first language to promote the idea that disability does not define a person. For example, say “the boy who has a disability” rather than “the disabled boy.”
Emphasize commonalities rather than differences. If your child sees someone in a wheelchair, rather than saying, "That person can’t walk, so she needs a wheelchair," you can say, “Her wheelchair helps her move, just like your legs help you move." Glasses help people see, hearing aids help people hear, sign language helps people communicate, and various braces and devices help people move—all of these can be tied to a point of connection with your child.
It’s okay if you don’t know the answer to one of your child’s questions. Together you can look online for the answer!
Some conversation starters to use for discussing disability:
Do you know what having a disability means?
Remember to use positive language when describing disability. For example, “Some people need to use a wheelchair to move,” rather than “Some people can’t walk.” Highlight the many ways that technology and adaptive equipment can help people with disabilities live regular lives just like everyone else.
Do you know anybody that has a disability?
At your own discretion, you could name a family member who has a disability and discuss.
What kinds of things make you different from your best friend? What kinds of things make you similar?
Here you can emphasize that all people have differences and similarities. Some people like sports and some people like drawing. Some people have blonde hair and some people have brown hair. Being different is not a bad thing; it’s just the way our world is!
What are some things that you need help with?
This encourages the child to consider how common it is to ask for help with things. Everyone needs help!
How do you think a person who uses a wheelchair might play soccer with their friends?
You can substitute any disability and any activity here. Focus the discussion on adaptation and having other people lend a helping hand.