How to talk to kids about disabilities

What we say to our children about differences can help build a more inclusive world.

Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science and parenting journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

The other day we were at the grocery store when my 5-year-old saw a girl in a wheelchair who looked different. My son started staring at her — and then wouldn’t stop. I was mortified and didn’t know what to do. Help!

Sincerely,

I Think My Kid Might Really Be An Asshole

Dear I Think My Kid Might Really Be An Asshole,

First, I want to assure you that I do not think that your kid is an asshole. Kids stare because they are curious, and because they haven’t yet learned what is polite and impolite. I consider these kinds of mortifying experiences as opportunities to recognize what kinds of conversations we should be having with our kids, and what skills we might need to be working on with them.

Of course, it’s better to have these conversations before our kids do something embarrassing or offensive, and I‘ll get to how to do that in a minute — but honestly, I do not think there is a parent in the world whose child has not done something cringe-worthy in public. These things happen, and as long as we learn from them and ensure that our kids do, too, we are making progress.

A few days ago I interviewed Kristine Napper, a middle school teacher and the author of the wonderful book A Kids Book About Disabilities, which I recently read with my 7-year-old. Napper, who is physically disabled, reassured me that while she doesn’t like being stared at, she also gets why children do it. “Anybody who's visibly disabled is very used to this,” she said. “You understand that kids are curious.”

But what you should you do in situations like this — and what can you do to prevent them? I posed these questions to Napper, as well as to Dr. Emily W. King, a child psychologist in private practice in Raleigh, NC who specializes in working with kids with autism, ADHD, and anxiety and their families and who also has a neurodivergent son. Here’s what they told me.

  1. If your kid asks questions about or stares at someone, answer their questions respectfully and honestly, and correct them if they are rude.

Napper told me a story about a woman and her daughter, who she guessed was about 5 years old, who sat down next to her one day on a train. Napper was extremely impressed with how the mother handled the situation, so I’m going to convey their conversation here:

5-year-old: “Mommy, why is this lady in a wheelchair?”

Mom: “Well, I don’t know! Let’s ask her. We talk to people, not about people.” Then, turning to Napper to ask her permission: “Is it OK if we ask you a question?”

Napper was incredibly impressed with this interaction because the mom conveyed a) that it’s not polite to talk about people behind their back, b) that it’s perfectly OK to converse with people who are different, and c) that it’s polite to ask for permission before asking someone about their difference or disability.

Napper said that after explaining why she was in a wheelchair, the mom and daughter engaged in small talk with her about the weather and about their plans for the day. She appreciated this, too, because it conveyed that Napper’s wheelchair didn’t define her — she was also a normal human being, with places to go and things to do.

After they talked, the 5-year-old continued to stare. The mom noticed and said, “OK, now you're staring, and no one likes to be stared at. That's not polite.” The girl then stopped staring, and that was that.

What if your kid makes a loud comment about someone with a disability? Napper explained to me that there’s an important difference between kids noticing a difference in a neutral or positive way (which is fine) and commenting on a difference in a negative way (in which case parents should step in and re-frame the observation or offer a correction). If your kid says That person is in a wheelchair!, you can affirm and build on that by saying Yeah, isn't it cool that different people have different ways to get around? Wouldn't it be boring if we were all the same? On the other hand, if your child says something like She looks weird, what’s wrong with her? You might say There’s nothing wrong with her, she just gets around differently than other people do, which is pretty neat. The same goes if you see someone behaving differently, King said. If your child says Why is that kid weirdly flapping his arms? about an autistic child who is stimming, King suggested you might say He doesn’t look weird to me. He looks like he moves his body that way when he’s excited to let all the energy out. Look at his smile and how excited he is.

  1. Don’t make up explanations about people with differences, and don’t steer your kids away from them.

When I asked Napper what she’s seen parents do that she really doesn’t appreciate, she said one thing that bothers her is when parents make up explanations — like when a child says Why is she in a wheelchair? and the parent replies with something like It looks like she got in a car accident. It’s far better to be honest and say you don’t know (or, ask the person with the disability yourself). Also, Napper does not appreciate when parents steer their kids away from her. “I get the intention — that they're trying to save me from awkward moments,” she said. “But I think their unintended message to the child is disability is bad or scary or shameful. And that's not a message I want kids to learn.”

King agreed, pointing out that if we act nervous or scared around people with differences, our kids will notice and make inferences. “We have to recognize that difference does not equate to danger. We might feel uncomfortable in an interaction, but when we avoid children with disabilities and their parents, this perpetuates the cycle of exclusion and inequality,” she said. “Children are taking their cues from us. Treating all people with kindness is the best way to model inclusion for your kids. This means not avoiding others who are different and saying ‘hello’ to parents of children with disabilities just as you would to any other parent.”

  1. Weave conversations about differences and disabilities into your daily lives.

One obvious way to avoid awkward moments in public is to regularly talk with kids about disabilities, so they aren’t surprised when they encounter them. But how should parents do this? One way is to use books and the media as a conduit. Read books to your kids that feature characters with disabilities (here’s a Huffpost round-up that might be helpful); introduce them to TV shows and movies that feature characters with differences, too (here’s a list curated by Very Well Family). Napper’s book also does a great job of explaining and framing disabilities as being perfectly normal, and it sparked a great conversation when I read it with my 7-year-old.

If your child knows someone with a disability, that’s a great way to start a conversation, too. Point out that “there are a range of disabilities and abilities among kids and grown-ups,” King suggested, and make sure to talk about disabilities you can see as well as those you can’t. “A child who uses a wheelchair or wears glasses will be simpler to explain because we all more readily understand things that we can see,” she said. “For a disability that might show up as unexpected behavior such as aggression or impulsivity, this can be harder for kids to grasp.” You might explain that while some disabilities you can see right away, others you learn about once you get to know a person better.

Another way to teach your kids about differences and inclusion, Napper said, is to talk about access. When you’re walking around with your kids and you see a wheelchair ramp, point it out and explain why it is there. Do the same when you don’t see accommodations. If you’re watching a video with your child and it doesn’t include captions, you could say, Gosh, I wonder how people who are hearing impaired watch this video. If you are in a building that has stairs and no elevator, point out that it must be difficult for people with wheelchairs to visit the second or third floor. Kids often appreciate these discussions, because they are so focused on fairness. They will easily recognize that we live in a world that does not accommodate differences to the extent that it should — and maybe, then, they will feel inspired to help build a more inclusive world.

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