Children are great at asking questions, at the end of the day, that’s how they learn! Often it can be relatively easy to answer their questions — even if it’s the fifth time they’ve asked you that day. But what if they ask you a question about disability? It can hard to know what to say.
There are 14 million disabled people in the UK yet talking about disability is still seen as a taboo topic. It can feel awkward for everyone involved, but it does not have to be that way. As a disabled woman, I’ve had numerous occasions where children have asked me about my condition. Having had younger siblings, I encourage their inquisitive side and I believe that ignoring the topic does disability a disservice.
When I’ve spoken to a child about disability
For example, I was waiting for a taxi from my local leisure centre when I noticed a little boy kept looking at me. At the time, I was using my wheelchair and assumed that was why he was looking. After a few minutes, I overheard his mother talking about wheelchairs and then her son appeared by my side saying:
Can I ask you a question?
I nodded. He responded:
How quick can your wheels go?
We ended up talking about how fast I could go, and he reckoned my ‘magic wheels’ were as fast as a rocket. His mother thanked me for taking the time to talk with her son. I thanked her because she enabled her son to have a conversation about disability that was age appropriate. I was really pleased she didn’t shut down his question or pull him away.
People are often worried about saying the wrong thing. Yet saying nothing at all can do more damage when it comes to explaining disability to children. Here are some of my top tips:
1. Acknowledge disability
I’m not the elephant in the room. You can say the word ‘disabled’. If it’s something your child has not seen before, it’s natural for them to have questions. Ignoring the topic completely can lead to fear of disability. This is the last thing we need. A lack of education and awareness are the biggest contributors to discrimination.
Scope’s End the Awkward campaign was originally launched in 2015. This was after a research report revealed that there’s a long way to go when it comes to public attitudes towards disability.
Two thirds of Brits say they feel awkward around disabled people. Some people feel so awkward they avoid disabled people all together.Scope
The campaign used humour to highlight how uncomfortable people can be around disability. It also offered suggestions on how to deal with uncomfortable feelings and has tips on appropriate use of language.
Despite being my favourite campaign that Scope has done, it’s a topic that still needs to be talked about.
If 1 in 5 people are disabled, it’s not as rare as you think. Unfortunately the media is very good at hiding the fact that disabled people exist. Yet I hope things are starting to improve.
2. Your actions shape their views
There have been countless times where a child has been told off for staring at me, or dragged out of the way when I’ve been in their path. I appreciate the good intentions. But what does that teach them? Should they keep far away from disabled people? Are we a taboo?
Taking the time to explain why they might need to move out of the way or why that man over there has one arm will help children to know we’re not to be feared. Part of this can be to normalise disability.
3. Normalise disability
Disabled characters can be included within the programmes they watch or books they read. This helps to remove the stigma and show it’s a normal part of society. There are many great books for kids that feature a disabled character. It’s a great way to open up the conversation about disability in a way that children can understand.
If you are wanting to teach your child about disability, having toys that include disabled characters can be another way to normalise it:
- Orchard Toys woodland party jigsaw features a girl using a wheelchair
- Barbie doll with a prosthetic leg
- Hot Wheels wheelchair car
- Lottie Doll Mia is a wildlife photographer who wears a cochlear Implant
- Orchard Toys road building jigsaw has a boy using a wheelchair
- Our Generation doll with long cane and guide dog
- Lego skate park featuring a wheelchair user
I’ll be honest, it was so hard to find toys for children that represented disability. The representation also heavily focused on wheelchair users. Despite this not being a bad thing, it would be great if toys showed a range of conditions and impairments. I also noted that most of the toys were dolls or were part of a hospital setting.
When looking into disabled toys I found #ToyLikeMe which is an organisation that campaigns for toys that disabled children can relate to. I know first hand how crucial it is for disabled people to have role models and feel represented — especially when you are growing up. However, I think we should strive to be better then that. Yes, disabled children should feel represented by their toys, but non-disabled children can also benefit from a diverse range of representation.
5. Being disabled is not a bad thing
Being disabled doesn’t mean someone is incapable. We’re disabled by society and the barriers put in our way. If you cannot walk but need to enter a building, stairs are going to disable you. If there was a lift, you’d be able to access the building. This is known as the social model of disability.
Read more — Disability: A hero or a victim?
With the right support, disabled people can still achieve and live a normal life. I really hope more parents will talk about disability with their children. If the next generation is knowledgeable about disability, disabled children can grow up in an truly inclusive society.
~ Chloe x
A shorter version of this blog post was originally written for Happiful Magazine — How to talk to children about disability