In honor of Developmental Disability Awareness Month, mom Amy Webb writes about how to help kids think about disability and behave when they meet someone who is different.
My middle daughter was born without a left arm. Well, she was born without most of her left arm. Her right arm is a little longer. But it’s still short, with a small, atypical hand. Her legs? Yep, also, shorter than average. Although she does have both feet with a total of nine little toesis.
As you might imagine, it’s very hard for her to fly under the radar. She is noticed everywhere she goes. And to top if off, she also drives a very large, very pink wheelchair. Beep, beep! Hi world, look at me!
You can imagine — actually, maybe you can’t, because I certainly couldn’t before — how strange it is to have a child who draws attention everywhere she goes because of how she looks.
As she grew into a toddler and suddenly wanted to be out and about as much as any other kid her age, I found myself in the position of explaining my daughter and her body to other children, shielding her from stares, deflecting unkind words (although that was rare) and answering questions everywhere we went. And I mean everywhere. Grocery stores, playgrounds, story times, birthday parties, Chick-fil-a, her sister’s school, her sister’s dance class, movie theaters, the mall, the zoo… and so on.
Understandably, a lot of kids have questions when they see a child who is really different from them. From the earliest days of becoming a “special needs mom,” I felt a responsibility to be an educator. Because I knew that if kids just saw her as a curiosity, they would keep their distance. But if I could answer their questions and break down the barriers, she would be familiar, a friend.
How to navigate meeting a child with special needs
In the early days, I frequently stumbled as I tried to answer questions about my daughter when she met other kids. As tough as those early interactions were for me, I could tell they were even more difficult and terrifying for the other mothers and caregivers who had absolutely no idea what to do or say. These parents often stood off to the side at a distance. In really desperate moments, they would shush their questioning children, while grabbing their arms and quickly walking away.
I get it, I do. If your kid says something like “Mom! That girl doesn’t have any hands!” well that’s not exactly covered in your arsenal of etiquette books and therefore it seems like the best idea is to leave. Immediately.
I’d like to suggest an alternative: Stay. Leaving the situation can unintentionally reinforce an “other” mentality, suggesting to our kids that a person with a disability is not someone we interact and play with. Staying and having a short conversation can bring down those walls of isolation and instead build bridges of friendship.
After years of fumbling, I finally developed a formula for navigating these conversations with young children. Here’s my four-step formula:
1. Don’t walk away, questions are OK
The emotions that a child feels when seeing or meeting a kid with special needs can range from curious, to nervous, to scared, to just plain confused.
Let your child know that if they have a question about someone who is different it’s OK. For example, if your child points at my daughter and ask “What happened to her arm?” my suggestion would be to get down on your child’s’ level and explain that some people are born differently. We often say, “She was born differently” or “This is how God made her.” Use whichever explanation feels right to you.
Invite your child to introduce him or herself to the other child and ask their name in return. If the caregiver is near you may want to reach out to them and say, “My child has some questions about your son/daughter, can you tell us a little about him/her?” Most parents I know are happy to share what makes their kiddo unique.
I know this is the hardest part because we think the kind thing is to shush our children and walk away. But walking away implies that there is something wrong with children who have special needs and we don’t interact with them. So please, do your best to stay.
2. Reinforce kindness
While it’s important not to shame kids for their curiosity, it’s also very important to let children know in no uncertain terms that certain things are not OK. It’s not OK to point, stare, laugh, call names or use mean words. Even if your child does this innocently (“She’s weird!” or “Yuck! Why does her arm look like that?”), please correct them.
You can say something like, “That would really hurt your feelings if someone laughed at you” or “She’s different than you, but she’s not weird.”
3. Find common ground
Once your child has some understanding that some people are just born differently, now is a great time to find common ground.
You can say “I bet she likes a lot of the same toys/games/food that you like.” You can then ask the child or the child’s caregiver what they like to do. Establishing this sameness is key. This is when the light goes on and children realize, “Oh, she’s just another kid, like me. We are more alike than different!”
4. Emphasize strengths
Now this one won’t be as easy if you don’t know the child with special needs personally, but when it comes to my daughter I try to emphasize that she is differently-abled.
Yes, there are some things she can’t do, like walking. That’s why she drives a power chair, but wow, she can drive a chair! Or I always tell them, she might not be able to do somethings you can do but guess what? She can write with her feet! This is when you see the jaws drop – literally. Again, it’s super important for kids to understand that everyone has something they’re good at. If possible, try to help your child see a special needs child’s strengths.
You may not do this perfectly, you might fumble for words or be at a loss, but most people will appreciate your effort and help you out in the process.
In my experience, education makes ALL the difference when it comes to teaching children about disability and fostering a community of inclusion.
Blogger Amy Webb (This Little Miggy Stayed Home) is an artist, writer and mother based in Cincinnati, Ohio. “When Charley Met Emma” (March 12) is a children’s book designed to help children see their peers with special needs as equals.
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