How to Talk to Kids About Disabilities

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By Mike Homco

Approximately 6.5 million people in the United States have an intellectual disability. So chances are, your child will encounter someone who has a disability and have questions. Whether it’s a classmate with Autism or a neighbor with Down Syndrome, questions will come up, and it is a good idea to prepare yourself.

First of all, embrace that they are curious. Let children ask their questions. It’s a good thing and the perfect time for a teachable moment. Diversity is an integral part of the human experience, yet, people are often hesitant to talk about differences. However, whether or not you talk about disability and differences, kids notice them. By not talking openly and allowing kids to ask questions, you’re teaching them that disability is a rude or taboo topic. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Be direct and honest, and answer the question using respectful, matter-of-fact language.

Redirection is a technique that parents sometimes use to help children understand what appropriate behavior is and how to manage their behaviors. But it shouldn’t be used when children are curious and want to understand and learn about disabilities.

You shouldn’t encourage your child to think that someone with a disability is the same as them. Instead, acknowledge that someone with a disability is different, but that being different doesn’t make a person with a disability bad. If you describe someone’s disability as horrible or pathetic, the child may feel sad for the person, and that’s not helpful. Keep emotion out of it.

Be sure to communicate that people with disabilities aren’t sick. There is nothing wrong with them. Sometimes a person is born with a disability, but it doesn’t mean your child can catch it.

Talk about Adaptive Equipment.

Talk to your child about how people with disabilities may use adaptive equipment to assist them. Take the opportunity to talk about crutches, wheelchairs, hearing aids, noise-canceling headsets, and why some individuals may use parking places designated for people with disabilities. You should also take the time to explain why some adorable service animals should never be pet unless the owner invites the child to do so.

Take the time to point out similarities.

While individuals with a disability may have differences, don’t let your child think they are entirely different. Take the time to point out everything the person has in common with your child. Sometimes you may not know the individual, so knowing similarities may be difficult, but if you do, pointing out that they both like music or hate Brussel sprouts can go a long way.

Be sure to teach kindness and sensitivity.

Unfortunately, the world is full of unkind people. And chances are that your child has or will overhear someone using unkind words to describe someone’s disability. Your child may even repeat them. Address unkind remarks right away. Talk to your child about hurtful language and that it is not ok to use unkind words. Ever.

Be a good role model. Children like to mimic what they hear at home. If you use outdated language or inappropriate words to describe people with disabilities, your child will follow suit.

Tell Your Child to Ask Before Helping

Kids often want to help but don’t always know how to be helpful. Teach your child to ask if there is anything they can do to help, as it gives the other person an opportunity to say whether help would be appreciated. And a child with a generous heart may want to help someone with Autism calm down, but in reality, they may make a situation worse, and the child may just need some time.

Encourage your child to be a friend.

While some children with Autism may give your child the idea that they want to be alone, many want to be included. Encourage your child to include peers with disabilities in activities like eating lunch at the same table or playing at recess. Inclusion promotes tolerance, cultivates empathy, and helps us see the person rather than the disability.

Mike Homco is executive director of Arizona-based One Step Beyond, a leading provider of comprehensive programming and services for adults who have intellectual disabilities. For more information about programs and services, visit https://osbi.org/.