Embracing Differences: Teaching Children About Disability

While I was pregnant and into the first weeks after I became a mama, I rode a rollercoaster of frustration, adaptations, and a reckoning of what my son’s life would look like with a mama who has a disability. Specifically me, with my wheelchair. My conclusion: my disability is an asset and will result in a stronger boy – mentally, emotionally, and probably physically. But what about other kids?

Kristin Beale and son

More times than I’ve counted, I’ve been in a situation where a kid sees my wheelchair, stares at it, and/or says something to their parent along the lines of “Why is she sitting down?” “She’s hurt,” or “Why can’t she walk?” They’re kids, so they don’t whisper, and I hear it loud and clear.

Jump into this scenario with me. As the parent, what do you do?

Scold him or her with something like “Quiet! Don’t let her hear you- she might be sensitive.”

Or make it a teaching moment: first, ask if the person is okay with talking about it (I’ve never not been), then open a conversation. For your kid, that alone – the opportunity for conversation – begins the process of breaking down the stigma that surrounds people with disabilities; often, the ability to match a face to a disability pushes it further out of foreign territory, even just a little. Breaking down that stigma, especially at a young age, teaches a solid lesson of respect and empathy toward people with a disability, or anyone who just goes through life a little differently.

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As someone with a disability, heck, I’ll choose a conversation over their Google searches that lead to incorrect assumptions any day.

Okay, I realize the situation isn’t always ideal for an approach and conversation: maybe you’re in a hurry, the environment is too busy, or you just don’t feel like getting into it. I get that. But I’m never going to be on the side of shushing your kid from asking questions because that can have a bad long-term effect. Instead, try giving your little one a simple explanation (“Her body was made differently, and her legs work differently than ours do.”) and a wave if you’ve managed to get the disabled person’s attention.

Teaching our kids that it’s not okay to ask questions and that they should treat people differently because of their dissimilarities will set them up for trouble as they grow older. Guaranteed. Rather, let’s teach the next generation how to respectfully educate themselves about the different kinds of people we’re asking them to live amongst. I’m not confirming that every person with a disability is open to talking about it, but I’ve never met someone who isn’t happy to explain their situation, especially to a curious kid. Tearing down the barriers between your kid and people who don’t look or function in the same way as him/her at an early age will stop some of the discrimination and grandiosity from taking root.

Let’s raise our kids to make a better future for everyone, disabled and all.

About the Author - Kristin Beale

Kristin Beale is a native of Richmond, Virginia. She is the author of three books, Greater Things and A Million Suns, Wide Awake, and a comic book, Date Me. Instagram: @kristin.gupta

Kristin Beale

The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $10,000,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.