Look. Kids are curious — and they're sometimes really, really blunt.
So when they come across someone with a disability they're not familiar with, they're going to have questions. It's normal! Curiosity is how we learn about the world around us and become more empathetic.
Telling them to be quiet and not to stare isn't going to help them learn. In fact, it teaches them to stigmatize disability — and that's not something we want.
But then what? How can you make sure your kid doesn't say or do something that might be offensive? How can you make sure your child is prepared for the day they encounter a disabled peer? How can you set your child up for success?
Here are some tips:
1. Talk about disability + diversity at home
If your child understands that people are different, they're less likely to make a big deal of it when they meet someone different than them.
2. Give them exposure
There are so many different books and movies out there that feature disabled characters. By exposing our kids to people different than us, we normalize it.
3. Encourage them to ask questions
It's often totally okay to ask questions, as long as you're respectful and kind. If your child is curious, encourage them not to talk about the person, but to talk to them.
4. But talk about what you can and cannot ask or say
We want to foster an environment of respect and empathy. So, questions like "What's wrong with you?", making jokes, and making comments like "wow, that must be hard" are a no-go. These things can hurt someone's feelings and make them uncomfortable.
Instead of asking intrusive personal questions like "how do you do this" or "how did you get your disability" or even "what IS your disability", try finding something you have in common. For example, "what are some of your favorite things to do?" is a great question to ask!
5. Remember respect
Remind your child that everyone deserves kindness and respect. We're all human. Encourage your child to listen attentively to the person's response and treat them how they'd like to be treated.
But also keep in mind that disabled people aren't here to educate you or your child, and they might not want to talk. Your child will be watching the way you engage and interact, so you have to be respectful, too.
6. Hands off
While curiosity might lead kids to reach out and touch things like wheelchairs or mobility aids, it's important to emphasize that they should never touch someone's mobility aid without permission. These aids are personal and essential tools for that person — like an extension of their body. Would you want someone to just run up and touch your leg? No!
7. Be a role model
As you know, kids watch everything you do. So in a new situation, they're going to be observing how you speak and act. The best thing you can do when you come across someone with a disability in public is treat them just like everyone else.
By normalizing disability for our kids, we teach them it's not a bad thing — it's just different!