Many parents of kids with disabilities (and adults themselves) have had similar, unfortunate experiences. The extra-long stares. Passers-by give a wide berth. Awkward questions are asked, but you can tell its not the questions they actually want to ask. And sadly, people just pretending like they aren’t even there.
A disability is anything that restricts everyday activities. It’s as simple as that and yet can feel overwhelmingly complicated to most of us—because no two experiences are alike. Whether it’s a relative or another kid on the playground, it won’t take long for a child to meet someone who might seem “different” to them. So let’s talk about it.
The Cold Hard Facts About Disabilities
- 50 million people in the U.S. have at least one form of disability (1 in 5)
1 million live with severe disabilities
2 million have a functional limitation
5 million are kids
- The main categories of disability are physical (the most common), sensory, psychiatric, neurological, cognitive, and intellectual
- Many have multiple disabilities
Talking Points for Children of Any Age
Life for toddlers is simply encountering everything. Whatever is nearby is getting their immediate attention. Sounds, objects, people—everything. Language development is also growing, which leads to learning the names of familiar people and objects. This is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how to meet someone new and introduce yourself.
Take a cue from these parents of kids with down syndrome. Hesitancy to interact out of sensitivity just makes things weird. Say hello. Introduce yourself. Ask the kid their name. Just like you would with any other kid. It’s that simple. And when you do that with your toddler, they’re not learning that kindness is only reserved for certain people. Kindness is for everyone.
At this age, encountering others has transitioned into socializing with others. Kids are expressing their emotions with each other. They’re self-monitoring and making up games together. Their imaginations are in full force and no idea is too silly or far-fetched. At this point in their lives, they tend to not have preconceived ideas of the limitations of themselves or of anyone else.
Encourage your kid to just play. Allow them to explore all the possibilities of play with others, regardless of what limitations you might think other kids might have. Kids tend to encourage their peers with challenges in ways that adults are hesitant. This could look like going taking them down the biggest slide on the playground, playing an unexpected pretend role, or asking questions adults wouldn’t think of. This reinforces the foundation that differences aren’t the emphasis of relationships. Friendship is possible with everyone.
That being said, communication with other parents is absolutely critical. There’s a grey area between freedom of play and safety and it is up to the parent of each child to decide what that looks like.
With age, comes seeing more of the world as it is. Differences are more apparent and curiosity sets in. This can result in the form of prolonged staring and/or asking blunt questions—about other kids or adults. You’ll be left with the “fun” and important job of answering “why?” Whatever the question or comment, here are some things to keep in mind:
Listen to what they’re really asking
Don’t rush to answer. Pause and ask for clarification.
Pace the facts you give
This could mean multiple conversations. An “I Wonder” Wall could help.
Be honest about not having all the answers.
Don’t avoid emotions
They’re important in developing empathy.
Late Elementary + Beyond
Kids at this age are looking for more responsibility, but might not be entirely confident once they get it. Their need for independence is building and their friendships are becoming more complicated. There are more grey areas. Understanding how to respect and help others can shape the choices kids make in challenging situations.
To start these conversations, practice kindness-in-action together as a family. Find local volunteer opportunities through specific organizations or though platforms like Family-To-Family, Doing Good Together, or VolunteerMatch. If possible, try to find opportunities in which your family will be able to directly interact with those benefiting from your help. When volunteering as a family, use some of these questions as conversation starters:
Why do you think we’re going to do ____?
Why do you think _____ needs our help?
How would you feel if you needed help like that?
How did you feel when you were helping with ____?
In what ways are ____ like our family?
Can you think of a reason why someone might not want your help?
The tricky balance to learn is: how can I be kind to others without treating them as inferior to me? There are no hard and fast rules on this because every situation is unique.
Things to Keep in Mind
- Say hello—it’s always a great place to start.
- Get to know them, the same way you would anyone else.
- More time spent with others who have a variety of social and physical needs gives kids the opportunity to learn how to interact with one another.
- Questions, in order to understand, are great, but ask the adult permission first. They might not be up for discussing their (or their kid’s) disability that day.
The Bottom Line
Kids are very observant but also very understanding. From early on they get that we are all different, but also very similar. Parents play an important role in the healthy growth of that understanding. Don’t allow your own nervousness around people with disabilities to prevent your kids from creating a sense of belonging wherever they are.