How do you explain disability to children? Many people see this topic as intimidating as e.g explaining the ‘birds and the bees’ to a pre-teen. When in actual fact many people overthink it. I promise it is not as sensitive and awkward as people assume. Children are clever little beings and there’s a large percentage of society that believes conversations such as explaining disability will no doubt go over their head. We’ve got to give kids more credit! They are not stupid and if you have a disabled family member or have been recently diagnosed with a condition yourself, the child in question has already noticed that you/insert family member here does have different abilities and limitations. Just because they may of never perked up and said, “oh why is Uncle Danny in a wheelchair now?” or “Mummy why can’t you get down on the floor and play with us anymore?” doesn’t mean they’ve been totally oblivious to the fact you/said individual now have additional struggles.
Be Clear and Factual
Sugar coating that you/somebody has a disability of some sort just creates more awkward questions for later. You’re much better being factual in clear, bite size pieces. For example say ‘Dad’ has had a recent diagnosis of adult onset Muscular Dystrophy.
“You know how I’ve been struggling to get up from the sofa and climb the stairs? Well, the Dr has discovered that I have something called Muscular Dystrophy and that means that my muscles are a lot weaker than yours. Sadly, there isn’t any medicines yet to make my muscles strong but really clever scientists are working on it. In the meantime we’re going to be getting some things in the house to make things easier. Do you have any questions for me?”
This dialogue is appropriate for a child age 4+ because you’re working off information that they’re already aware of, that you have struggled with x, y and z for some time and it isn’t said in a ‘doom and gloom’ context, you’ve kept to the facts and within that first real conversation about the diagnosis you’ve included things that will help despite there isn’t any treatment.
Now an older child 10+ may have additional questions but again, clear and factual is key. Ignoring difficult questions like, “will you need a wheelchair?” particularly if say you know in the back of your head that a mobility aid maybe in your near future but you’ve not come to terms/accepted the need for it, will just cause the child anxiety. If you don’t know the answer, simply say that. You may or you may not need a mobility aid in the future, there are many unpredictable diagnosis’s but if your Dr has already mentioned a wheelchair e.g perhaps because of the number of falls you’ve had and you’re finding yourself isolated, then you need to put your emotions on the topic aside and say it how it is.
It’s a known fact that children are better at processing change than adults. In fact, how children naturally go with the flow and adapt so easily can put us to shame. While you’re worrying over how your children maybe affected emotionally by a sudden diagnosis/onset of disability in the family, your child is taking it for what it is and simply carrying on. They simply don’t have the emotionally maturity to worry about the ins and outs until they’re older.
Guilt is another thing, you may feel guilty that your diagnosis has ‘ruined their childhood’ but your child loves you unconditionally and doesn’t see the situation as burdensome. Let go of that guilt and focus on embracing the abilities that enable you to continue to be the best parent you can be.
Have the Talk
If you’re wondering how to introduce disabilities to a child(ren) say in the classroom or you’re being mindful that your child hasn’t really been exposed to disabled people and you want them to have a positive attitude towards it, the best thing you can do is have the talk while the child is still young.
Children are like sponges, they retain what you say even if it appears they’re not paying much attention. It’s important to portray disability in an upbeat manner, not as a great tragedy that can happen to some people. We want the children of this generation to grow up being exposed to all kinds of people and accept them for who they are regardless of their ability, sexuality or race. It’s much harder to introduce it to them later on because it then becomes fear of the unknown.
The easiest way to start the conversation is by pointing out the differences between yourself and your child, your child’s friend and them etc. How people have different coloured hair, eyes, skin but on the inside everybody is the same and wants the same things. Going on to introduce that some people are born with a disability, which means they struggle in ways that able bodied people don’t. Some use wheelchairs or walkers, some you can’t see anything physically different but they struggle to learn, some cannot see so use a guide dog/white cane. It’s important to explore a variety of different disabilities.
Always encourage children to ask disabled people questions directly. Don’t get embarrassed if your child is staring at somebody with a disability, we know that kids are just curious and will not be offended, it’s when adults do this that makes things uncomfortable. Shushing your child and telling them to not look at us is saying to that child that disabled people are bad and something to fear. It’s the worst thing you could do. We will always explain in an age appropriate way “why” we are this way or that.
For example, if a child asks me “what happened?” I’ll very matter of factly say “I was born with weak muscles and this wheelchair helps me get around.” We aren’t going to divulge some tragic backstory with nitty gritty details that’ll scar your child for life. Believe me when I say, disabled people have been asked everything there is to ask by complete strangers, including children and are more than equipped to deal with such situations.
I hope you’ve found this guide helpful in introducing disability to children in a variety of settings and circumstances.