How do you talk to your kids about disability?

Disability is a real part of life for a lot of people
Disability is a real part of life for a lot of people

You’re out in public and your child asks about someone who has a cane, how do you approach it? 

Disability is a real part of life for a lot of people. Whether it be visible or not. Disabled people can have more complicated lives than able-bodied people, but they can definitely still have full, well-balanced, enjoyable lives.

Unfortunately, many of us have been taught not to stare or ask questions as it’s rude. Or give unsolicited help because we think we’re “helping” without asking first.

This is just one way of being ableist. Recently, I saw a Twitter thread where Dr Amy Kavanagh, a visually impaired activist and campaigner, spoke about how she was horrified when a parent shushed their child on the bus when the child asked why Kavanaugh had a cane.

She said she would prefer that parents educate their children and normalise disability instead of making it seem taboo. 

So, I spoke to Dr Heidi Lourens, senior lecturer of psychology at the University of Johannesburg, who is also visually impaired, on the ways parents can best address this with their kids. 

Think of your own reaction first

“Firstly, I think it is of the utmost importance how parents, themselves, react to the disabled person,” says Lourens.

“If the parent patronises, gasps, or avoid answering the child's questions, this might demonstrate to the child how to respond to someone with a disability.”

She points out that it’s perfectly okay to keep it simple and to the point.

If your child asks why that person is allowed to have a dog in the shop, or why they can’t pet that dog, it’s totally acceptable to tell them that person cannot see without the help of the dog and the dog is doing their best to help their owner. 

Don’t shame your child or the person they’re referring to

“However, if the parent shushes the child, it will teach the child it's not okay to talk about a disability, which, in turn, might spark and fear for, and avoidance of, the disabled person.

“If the parents are comfortable around disabled persons, it will show children to be comfortable around disabled persons and vice versa,” says Lourens. 

Should you have a larger conversation in private with your child about disability?

Lourens is of the opinion that you shouldn’t make too much of a fuss, but if your child asks, tell them.

If they ask about the person they saw in the wheelchair, or a relative that has recently become disabled, be transparent with them and if you,

as the parent, don’t know much about it, then tell them you can look for resources together to learn more such as storybooks, articles or videos. 

There needs to be more integration

Lourens rightfully points out that if disabled children were fully integrated into ordinary schools, this conversation would so much easier, but unfortunately, we’re not there yet.

“Learning through exposure - for example having a peer/friend that is blind/hard of hearing/in a wheelchair is the best way to learn of the disability,” she says. 

Ask before you try to help

Lourens has had many instances of ableism and able bodied people trying to help without actually asking first. 

“What is particularly hard for me is if people simply grab me in an effort to help,” she says. 

“Of course, I know this comes from a very good place, but grabbing someone and dragging them to where you think they want to go to is simply not polite - would you do it to someone else?

Help is often welcome, but it is important for someone to ask: 'do you perhaps need help?'

”This gives her, as the disabled person, the option and right to refuse or accept and teaches not just children, but also other adults, that is not okay to just assume. 

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