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Disconnect to Reconnect with Nature

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How to Talk to Kids (And Parents) About Disability

by Amy Julia Becker


Amy Julia Becker

Noted author, blogger and advocate of Ashoka's Ashoka’s "Start Empathy" Initiative, Amy Julia Becker has written several books, articles and essays about her experiences raising a daughter with down syndrome. Read more »

Sorry, Amy Julia Becker is no longer taking questions.

We were perusing our local nature center last weekend, and my seven-year-old daughter Penny abruptly stopped walking. Ahead of us were twin girls, probably three or four years old. One used a walker to support herself. Penny didn’t say anything, but her eyes grew wide as they passed by. Today in school my younger daughter, Marilee, who is two, had a similar response to a girl with a crutch propped under her arm.

We see kids and adults with physical aids all the time—the young woman in the wheelchair at church, the little boy at the dentist with the special lift in his car that helps him get up and down, the man with the knee brace, the girl with a cast on her arm. Sometimes their situation is permanent, other times it is temporary. But either way, my kids are inclined to stare and then to ask me what happened.

For a long time, I didn't know what to say.

My inability to respond felt ironic. Penny was born with Down syndrome, so she too has physical signs of difference, in her bright green almond-shaped eyes, in her short stature, in the braces she wears on her ankles and the glasses on her face. But just because I have a child with a condition that affects her physical and cognitive abilities doesn't mean I automatically knew how to talk about disability with her or with our other children. And yet, as Penny grew up, I started to think about Down syndrome differently than I once had. In time, I was able to apply what I had learned about Penny to the various people I encounter who live with both physical and intellectual challenges. I don't always do it perfectly, but I'm far more comfortable and adept at talking with my kids about disability than I used to be. Here's some of what I've learned:

1. Examine your own responses. If I'm fearful or anxious or uncomfortable in response to someone, my kids will pick up on it, no matter how kind my words are. The easiest way I've found to overcome my own negative assumptions about people with intellectual and physical disabilities has been to get to know real people. In time, I've recognized my own ignorance about disabilities in general even as I've begun to appreciate the particular stories and abilities of every person I encounter.

2. Talk about disability in positive terms. When my children see someone in a wheelchair, rather than saying, "That person's legs don't work, so s/he needs a wheelchair," I say, "That wheelchair helps that person move around, just like your legs help you move around." I try to emphasize the points of connection rather than the points of separation. Glasses enable sight, hearing aids enable hearing, sign language enables communication, and various braces and casts enable movement.

3. Talk about disability in a way that creates commonality. Even when the differences aren't physical, kids tend to pick up on them. But just as with physical disabilities, parents can set a tone of reciprocity through the way we talk about social/emotional and behavioral challenges. For example, my son William came home from preschool and told me that his friend Ashley screamed a lot in school. I knew Ashley had behavioral challenges, and I almost said, "She can't help it, honey." But instead of asking him to tolerate her behavior, I talked with him about what she was good at ("running around") and what was hard for her ("listening"). Then I talked about what he was good at ("listening") and what was hard for him ("coloring"). Then we talked about how they could help each other. Instead of focusing on her challenges, we were able to identify their commonality as human beings, who both had challenges and both had strengths. These conversations invite reciprocity and relationship rather than division and pity.

I used to inadvertently divide the world up into different sets of people, with a line that ran firmly between me and those with physical and especially intellectual differences. With Penny in my life, for a time the line became blurry. Now it has been erased altogether as I have learned a new way of seeing, and talking, about people who need help in ways that I don't. Instead of seeing them as those who need my assistance, I see them as fellow human beings, with strengths and weaknesses, vulnerabilities and gifts. And I try to help my children see the same.

What makes it difficult for you to talk with your children about people with disabilities? What strategies have you used to try to talk these things through?

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