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How to Talk to Your Kids About Disabilities

December 3rd is International Day of Persons with Disabilities! This day spreads global awareness and champions fundamental human rights for those with a disability. We thought it would be essential to address and offer guidance on how best to talk with your children about people with disabilities to honor this day.  

Talking to young children about disabilities is something that every parent must confront, and it is most often when out in public with a young child. From a relative who uses a wheelchair to a friend who has a learning disability, children can often ask questions that you might not always have an answer to provide them. Rather than avoiding the conversation entirely, it is imperative to address questions and explain with respectful and matter-of-fact speech. Topics such as disabilities can often be daunting without prior knowledge, but we have you covered!   


Here are some helpful tips on having a meaningful conversation on disability awareness with your child.   

Acknowledge Curiosity  

Naturally curious, children have an innate desire to explore the world around them, especially when things seem different than what they usually consider “normal.” Therefore, a child might see a person with a disability and ask questions about what they might be seeing. On occasion, children might be unable to construct a question but will stand in place and continually stare in fascination. This moment is an opportunity to acknowledge their curiosity by offering a brief explanation. By keeping the explanation short and “matter-of-fact,” you eliminate shame from the conversation entirely. For example, explain the usage of hearing aids, how certain ears work differently than yours, and how the device helps an individual to hear correctly.   


Use Respectful Language  

It is vital to use the proper terminology when referring to any disability, and it’s even more crucial to be careful with our speech when in the presence of children. Two main concerns when addressing disabilities with children are distinguishing between the individual and their disability and, secondly, being aware of and not using derogatory language. For example, when explaining autism, it is preferred to reference the individual as “being on the autism spectrum” rather than stating that the person is “autistic.”   

Derogatory language is any language that could be hurtful for an individual with disabilities. It is important to ask your child how they might feel about the word being used if they too were disabled. It wouldn’t feel so great! We create a world where individuals are not their disabilities and are respected as people by teaching empathy.   

Point out similarities and strengths rather than differences and weaknesses  

When speaking to kids about disabilities, use this as an opportunity to stress all the ways in which those with disabilities are exactly like your child. This will remind your child that this too is a real-life person just like them! Once the person is identified in such a way, we can acknowledge that this person also has feelings, and your child will be better able to imagine what it is like to be that person. Building from that ability to imagine another’s feelings is the foundation to developing empathy.  

You might also use the opportunity to encourage your child to be helpful to others, when appropriate and needed, with things that are difficult for them. For example, in our curriculum we provide teachers with the basics of sign language to instruct our students on! The more that we take the time to learn more about how others live a little differently than ourselves while appreciating our similarities, the kinder the world around us becomes. 


Bullying is WRONG  

Because children with disabilities may look or act different from their peers, they are more susceptible to bullying from other children. It is crucial to ensure your child understands that ‘no bullying’ is an absolute rule—that even if their friends are doing it, they cannot join in. By teaching empathy and compassion, your child will acknowledge that this behavior is uncalled for and could hurt the feelings of a person who cannot control the aspects of themselves that are being made fun of. No one should be made to feel less than or inadequate.   


We hope that these tips helped prepare you for discussing disabilities with your children. The main things to remember are that children are naturally curious, and questions are inevitable. It’s up to parents to teach children to empathize by imagining others’ feelings. It’s our job to show children respect and focus on our similarities instead of our differences.