How To Teach A Child About Disabilities, According To Moms & Kids With Disabilities

Every parent knows it's challenging to raise children, especially when you're simultaneously facing challenges of your own. And for parents and kids with disabilities, those challenges often include the way people treat or perceive you. There are a variety of misconceptions about people living with disabilities, including the fact that there are numerous types of disabilities, both visible and invisible. That's why it’s up to everyone to educate themselves, be inclusive and accommodating, and, if they're parents, educate their children. So, how do we teach our kids about disabilities? Romper reached out to parents with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities willing to help us all be better.

As a mom, one of my main goals is to make sure I raise a child who grows up to understand that the world is filled with a variety of unique people who are all deserving of respect and understanding. So not only do I take the time to teach my son about sexism, racism, and classism, but I make sure he knows about ableism and what it means to be an able-bodied ally. Having said that, I know I will fail at this goal; a fact made all too real to me after my son was loudly curious about an individual's hook prosthetic. I know it's OK for kids to be curious, but as parents we need to help guide their curiosity. I’ve also become more aware of the importance of exposure, made even clearer to me after seeing a production of Into the Woods by the Phamaly Theatre Company, which exclusively hires actors with disabilities.

So with that in mind, and because we can and should always take the time to be better, I spoke with a number of mothers who are either disabled themselves or raising kids with disabilities, and asked them to share their thoughts on teaching all kids disability awareness. While the onus is always on us to educate ourselves, these mom did have a few words to share:

Amanda, 39

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“Teach your children that other kids are different than they are, but that it's OK. Don't be afraid to ask questions if you don't know about a particular disability. We would rather answer thoughtful questions than endure stares, whispers, and other negative behaviors.”

Kathy, 52

“My daughter has significant speech and development delays stemming from brain damage that is most likely caused by genetics. I think the best thing parents can do to teach disability awareness is to make sure they are aware and comfortable with disabilities themselves. The biggest issue I've had isn't with kids; it's with parents staring at my daughter, or whispering among themselves and never approaching her or me. Or worse, moving their child away from us. I find kids are great. They ask questions. And even if they aren't always perfect in the way they ask, they are quick to understand and then talk to my kid.”

Debby, 30

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Sensory accessibility is a thing! When trying to make a space accessible consider the amount of fluorescent light, and how much there is to take in all around the room. Also consider background noise, fans whirring and spinning, music, etc. Some people like and need more sensory stimulation and some people need far, far less to be comfortable. For children, teaching them the difference between stimulating spaces and calming spaces can help them have more awareness of how a space affects someone’s senses.”

Grace, 43

My 11-year-old has autism. The most hurtful word is ‘wrong,’ as in ‘What's wrong with him?’ or, ‘What's wrong with you?’ People aren't wrong. They're just different, and different isn't bad.”

Toni, 36

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“This meme says a lot. We have mental health stuff going on as well as a (minor) physical disability. The physical disability gets to my son more than the mental health stuff. He wears braces on his ankles and he’s super aware of how he’s different and can’t do some of the stuff his peers can do. Staring is rude. But someone asking polite questions and saying hello is much better.”

Bernice, 54

“I would start [by getting involved] in the very early program that a child goes to school: preschool. Being part of a teacher’s curriculum on how people learn differently. Whether they see or use different parts of their body to learn.. our child just sees differently, as she's blind. Teachers being aware and providing knowledge to the young and their peers [is important].”

Maya, 35

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“I'm a mom with a disability parenting three kids with different disabilities. One thing [my son] and I do is give presentations to his class. I did that as a teen, too. He's done them in kindergarten, first grade, and to a Boy Scout Troop who was doing a sensitivity badge. He walked in on his brother's troop trying out wheelchairs — which is a cub scout badge requirement. He was so offended that they were ‘trying on my disability’ that he walked into the room and told the den leader they should be talking to him instead of playing in wheelchairs. She invited him to give a talk at the next meeting. We do it in conjunction with Marfan Awareness Month, actually.

I think one of the most important ways to raise awareness is by educating and empowering my child. By 3, he could tell me what all his medications were for. At 6, he was giving his first presentation. We were in California for the Marfan National Conference last week and he got asked by a store owner what he was in town for. Julian told them he was in town for the Marfan Conference and gave them his ‘elevator speech’ about the syndrome.

I let him call the shots on answering invasive questions, too. We were out last week and a kid, maybe 10, came up to me and wanted to know why Julian was in a wheelchair. I asked Julian if he wanted to answer, and he did. I would want other parents to know disability isn't shameful. It's OK to ask questions, or for your kids to ask questions. At the same time, be OK with not getting an answer. People with disabilities exist to live their lives, not to educate. But most of us are willing to educate most of the time. I think timing is part of it, too. Like, are you interrupting the person to ask your question? There's a difference in asking someone you're talking to, or who doesn't seem busy, and asking someone who is clearly otherwise engaged, and think about how you'd feel if you were asked that question. I'm usually an, ‘ask me anything and I won't be offended’ person.

I also think awareness needs to be sensitive to our kids. So you know, I share stuff during Autism Awareness Month, but I'm not sharing videos of my kid's meltdowns online. He has a right to privacy. I have kids who are cognitively able to tell me what I can and can't post, but if your kid can't it doesn't mean you need to share everything in the name of ‘awareness.’ Comes back to us not existing to educate.”

Jenny, 39

“They need to be exposed to kids with disabilities! Exposure is so important, in my opinion. This way they understand that people are all different and unique.”