Teaching Your Children About People with Disabilities

Updated on August 23, 2010
S.B. asks from Kansas City, MO
12 answers

Recently I was in the grocery store with my 3 year old, who is very curious about everything and vocal, as 3 year olds are, and the lady in the check out next to us was in a wheelchair and obviously mentally disabled. My daughter said something about her looking weird, and I kind of shhhed her and said she looked fine.

I am just wondering if any of you mamas have any tips for how to deal with this/make my daughter not seem so obnoxious or uncomfortable around people with disabilities. I didn't want to say anything there that might have made the lady next to us uncomfortable and I feel like I failed her and my daughter in a teachable moment.

The only kind of disabilities my daughter is exposed to generally are her great grandmother with a walker and great grandfather with no voice box, although she seems to take that in stride, just as how Grandpa always talked. She also has an uncle who's a little slow, but she's never said anything or acted weird around him.

Mostly, I want to be able to deal with a situation like this in the future without hurting anyone's feelings, as the last thing I want to do is make someone else uncomfortable. I dont remember how I learned about it as a kid, so I'm not sure how to deal with these things with mine.

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answers from Harrisburg on

If I was in that situation, I would probably say "Honey, that's not nice of you to say. Inside this wheelchair is a very special person" then apologize to the person and say "please excuse my daughter, she's 3"...

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answers from San Francisco on

Awesome question. =)
I work with special needs kids, and I have a kid in special ed myself.
When kids get into school and see special ed kids for the first time, it's important that they feel comfortable around them, so they can treat them normally.
One thing to teach is that we don't talk about they way people look, unless it is to give a compliment. Kids will say anything---about wrinkles, yellow teeth, etc.--not just about disabilities.
The other day, I took my kids 10 &12 to get haircuts, and there was young man getting his hair cut who had one leg (no prosthetic either, just crutches). I noticed my kids glancing curiously at him and watching him leave, but they said nothing.

I think the best thing to do is (1) try to expose them to people who look different (this can be through pictures--like a magazine or internet story about disabled veterans, prosthetic limbs, Down Syndrome, wheelchairs or whatever)
and (2) to talk about it like it is no big deal. Be very "matter of fact" about it, like, oh, some people look different or move differently, and some grown up people need help with stuff, like you do, but they are just people. There are athletes with missing limbs, and other high profile people, and it's great to find examples of those you can show. There is a woman named Bonnie St John who had a leg amputated at 5 years old, and she is beautiful, athletic, successful and wears skirts, doesn't believe in hiding her prosthetic.
I know someone who refers to handicapped parking spots as being for "broken people", which sounds insensitive, but does help clarify for young kids that there is a reason the spots are saved for them. Kids understand "broken", like a toy car that lost its wheels, but you can still play with it, just in a different way.
For example, for people with mental disabilities you can tell a child that some people have bodies that grow up like an adult, but their brains don't grow as much as their body, so they still act like a kid, and they always will---so their outside and their inside don't exactly match. This also applies to those who have physical problems that make them look very different and they need a lot of help, but their mind is not affected--like multiple sclerosis (think Michael J. Fox)...their outsides and insides don't match because one works better than the other.
This works in talking about people who have scars on their face too--show a child photos of burn scars and things like that. This is also good for safety education.
Kids movies often have the scary bad guy shown as ugly. This is to help kids follow the plot and remember who the bad guy is, but also make kids feel safe, that bad guys will look like bad guys, so it is easy to know if someone is bad.

Of course this is not reality! Outsides and insides don't always match, and someone who looks nice and normal might be a kidnapper! Kids should know that, to understand about strangers and trust.

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answers from Charlotte on


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answers from St. Louis on

Parenting is just a series of teachable moments. Looking back it seems that I was usually the one being taught the most! So, just accept this as one of YOUR teachable moments.

It seems to me that you want to teach yourself how to expand your language skills as a parent, so that you can help your daughter develop tact, courtesy, and eloquence in social situations.

What I would likely try to do is help my daughter understand that the word 'weird' is a word we use to describe our own feelings, not other people. You might begin by asking what it might feel like if someone said she looked weird. I work with a lot of children. I have often told them that their words are very powerful in my ears and that their words can shift the way I think and feel. Then, I can help them understand how powerful words can be in their ears. Then, we can talk about how our words can be gifts we give to others.

But, you will also need to develop your readiness to handle situations when a child misspeaks. There is no way to be completely prepared with the perfect response. I'll never forget the time my little white 4 y/o, at a very quiet moment in a sacred observance of Martin Luther King Day, looked up at a very beautiful, dark-skinned woman covered in mink, and said, "Mommy, why's that lady dressed like a squirrel?" Sometimes, there is just nothing you can say in the moment. Nonetheless, you can be prepared to encourage your child's development in social skills.

In the situation you described, I might have responded with something like, "Did you mean to say YOU feel weird because you never saw a nice lady in a cool wheelchair before?" Teaching our children to turn the finger they are pointing at others back onto themselves not only teaches them tact, but self awareness and humility as well.

By the way, I learned much of this from The Virtues Project and the book The Family Virtues Guide by Linda K. Popov. Most important book on parenting I ever read!!

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answers from Dallas on

as a mother of a child who has severe cp this is a great question. it is often hurtful when children stare at our son (or even adults). It is important to talk to our kids about how all people are different & that we love all kinds of people no matter what.
I also must say that I do not like it when people ask about his condition or ask why he is in a wheelchair. I usually just say that he has CP but some people are nosy & keep asking questions. This is very hard for me because my son had a TBI when he was 6 months & I don't like to talk about it, because it is too painful. (just a note)
I always tell my daughter that some people cannot use their arms or their legs like we can so they have special tools to help them. I also tell her that some people cannot use their brains like we can & so we need to be extra patient & loving to them.

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answers from Kansas City on

I take every opportunity to talk with my daughters about how every person is different-- even when they notice "normal" things like someone having curly hair. I say something like "Isn't her hair beautiful. It's so neat that every person is different and we all don't look the same." I also take the opportunity to discuss it when we see someone who has a disibility on TV or in a magazine-- "isn't that cool? He doesn't have a leg, so they built one for him." The more you discuss it, the less unusual it will be when she encounters it in real life.

I think you handled it well, and it would be good to explain as soon as you are out of earshot that talking about people might hurt their feelings and if she has a question about someone, she can ask you about it when the person is not around. Then you get the chance to answer her questions later and again explain how wonderful it is that we are all different. If she doesn't bring it up herself, take the initiative to ask if she had any questions about that person.

I'm so glad you're raising your daughter to be considerate of other people! Keep up the good work!

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answers from St. Louis on

hot topic for me!! My son was diagnosed w/ a degenerative hip disease at age 6 (KG). Surgery in 1st, 3rd, 4th grade. Thru the years he used crutches, orthotic hip braces, wheelchair, etc. He hated how people of all ages responded to him, & developed quite a chip on his shoulder. I will never forget the day when he said, "why do I have to be tolerant of all of these jerks looking at me & saying things about me? I'm the one who's disabled.....why do I have to be understanding?" WOW.

& that's what his childhood was. Not only the kids, his classmates....but the adults, too. We were car shopping one day, & my son was about 10y.o. & using his crutches....not his hip brace....since we were in/out of our car a lot. The salesman came up to us, said a few pleasantries, & then turned to our son & said, "what did you do to yourself?" He thought he was being kind....but my son took it wrong & said, "I didn't do anything to myself. I have Perthes Disease which is a degenerative hip disease which means I can't walk like everybody else." This hit the salesman soooo hard that he almost doubled over! I was torn btwn being proud of my son putting the man in his place....& horrified at how callously blunt he'd been.

Thru his school years, my son would rotate btwn his orthotics. He was also able to play some sports occasionally & go without any support- from age 13 on. We live in a small town, all the dads knew him.....& yet repeatedly "forgot" about his disability. Time & time again, my son would have a dad walk up to him - pop him on the shoulder, & say, "why the heck aren't you out there on the field? You're a big boy, you should be playing & not just sitting around." OMG, my son was relentless with those dads! He had no qualms about slapping his hip & saying, "my hip, remember? I have a degenerative disease & can't play most of the time. Remember?" OMGosh, that mouth of his!.....& that chip on his shoulder.

I have one more trip down memory lane: prior to his diagnosis, my son & his cousin were on a road trip w/ my mom. The kids were running up/down the sidewalk, sticking their head in a barber shop doorway (which was open), & were yelling "broken leg, broken leg"....& then would dart back out onto the sidewalk. They were about 4 & were having a blast! My mom caught up to them, stuck her head in the doorway, & started to apologize. She then realized that the man was in a wheelchair - an amputee. She was horrified! & began to apologize.....but the man just waved & said, "children don't know any better until they see this 1sthand. They're fine." ......end result, the kids apologized to the man, they talked about his leg,.....& on our next trip to the library we checked out the Berenstain Bear book about disabilities. I then began to search for books to help us....& there are quite a few out there!

I truly believe that this event helped prepare my son for his own disability. At that time, we also had an uncle in a wheelchair & he let the kids climb all over it which also helped familiarize them with special needs. AND to help your child learn about special needs, what about volunteering at a nursing home or at your local chidlren's facility? Use the books, be on the lookout for videos (Sesame St & Franklin both have handicapped children), & be proactive in teaching about "differences".

Whooops, one more story: when my younger son was about 3, he grabbed a child's arm at a store. This family was not caucasian & my son was fascinated with their skin color. MY whole family was shocked & embarrassed! I turned to the other family & apologized. I explained that we lived in a very small town &......obviously......my son needed to learn about life & that we needed to get out more! They smiled & encouraged my son to check out the differences & similiarites btwn the children. I was sooo touched that they took the time to let my son learn from the moment!!! & for me, the best part was when our children compared their hair....they had the same dense curly hair.....just different colors! So get your child into situations which will promote learning about differences....& life will be easier!

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answers from Kansas City on

Oh yea, we've all been there haven't we! I think it's almost easier to deal with the disability questions then the "what does she have in her tummy" and "why are his teeth so yellow" comments! ;) (and yes, both have happened to me and the first one wasn't at all pregnant!) At least you know you missed a teachable moment and can maybe be more prepared next time, although you never know! I think you have to be as straight forward as possible, with tact of course, when dealing with a 3 year old. Just try and roll with it and don't be too hard on yourself or your daughter!

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answers from Rochester on

She's still a bit young for you to expect her not to notice, and I don't think people are offended by small children who notice things because we all notice them, children are just the ones who say something. You could check out your library and ask your children's librarian for some reading suggestions (they usually have lists by topic) and I'm sure Sesame Street has some good stuff on their website if you dig around--they have always been amazing about celebrating differences. No matter how you prepare, there will be something "different" you forgot to talk about.

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answers from Pittsburgh on

What might be a good idea is to use her relatives as an example/comparison. "Grandma uses her walker to help her walk and this lady uses a wheelchair to get around." That kind of thing. I always stress to my son that just because someone can't walk/has autism/is blind etc. that it doesn't mean that defines the person. I swelled with pride when we were in the car the other day and I said "Well...just because so-and-so has autism it doesn't mean..." And my son filled in the blank with "you can't be friends!" :-) Very proud.
I always talk about abilities vs. disabilities in the same person...even if it's about O. of his pals who is not good at baseball for example...I add but he's an awesome artist!
Although uncomfortable in a public venue like you described, I think most disabled people would welcome a discussion like "Ma'am, does that wheelchair help you get around well?" etc.

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answers from Joplin on

we have a couple of kids in our community that are special needs. (in wheel chairs) I tell my daughter, she met them when she was 4, now she is 6, that they are special gifts from God. When she met Trichelle for the first time she stared. I told her she likes when you talk to her. then Jule just started talkin and then she would push her around in the chair. Trichelle loved it. I tell her to be gentle. But they are buds now. I love it.

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answers from Dallas on

This is a good question and every time I'm in public with my 2.5 year old I wonder if this will be the time I'm put in this situation....I know it's just a matter of time. I've kind of prepared myself with a "isn't it wonderful that God made everyone so different in all shapes, sizes and colors..." kind of thing. Although I'm always open to suggestions, that was just the best I could come up with. I'll be checking in to see what other moms suggest.

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