Your children are watching and learning from you, every day, every moment. They listen to your words, imitate your actions, follow your cues on how to behave in new situations, mimic your example on how to interact with people they meet. And they will learn, from you, how to understand disability.
I used to be afraid of disability. The stigmas and stereotypes passed down to me almost paralyzed me when my youngest daughter was born with Down syndrome. I struggled with her diagnosis. But in no time I realized that my little girl was not defined by her diagnosis, she was a little girl first, my daughter, with a rascally personality, a disarming smile, and a strong will. Through parenting her, I learned that disability is a normal part of life. We then adopted a little girl with cerebral palsy.
Sadly, the fear of disability is still out there, and dear parent of a typical child, you can help your child understand that disability is indeed a normal part of life – but you can only teach what you know.
If you are uncomfortable with disability and pull your children away from other kids with disabilities when they are playing together at the park, or at a party, or at the library, you are teaching your kids that children like mine are scary, repulsive, and people to stay away from.
Disability is not contagious. Don’t let your kids grow up carrying the same stigmas and stereotypes that were passed on to you, please. Be brave, make a difference for your child by acknowledging that kids and adults with disabilities are people first, with gifts, talents, and abilities.
If your child is curious, remember that curiosity is part of healthy development, children are learning, making sense of their world. But be ready to respond in a way that helps them understand and embrace disability, not run away from it.
If your child says, “What’s wrong with him mama?” Say, “Nothing is wrong with them, they have a disability, do you know what disability means?”
Perhaps you can explain disability by talking about apples. Apples can be green, red, or speckled; they look different but they are still apples. You can eat an apple, or an apple pie, or apple sauce. You can drink apple juice, or apple cider, or even apple soda. And it goes without saying that you can eat apple pie, but you cannot drink it. And you can drink apple soda, but not eat it.
We are like apples. We might look different on the outside, but we have the same essence, we are all made in the image of God.
While my daughter with cerebral palsy might not be able to walk well, she is very creative, which makes her a great artist.
We all look a little different on that outside. We are all perfectly unique.
Teach your children that nobody is defined by their diagnosis.
Teach them that children are children first.
We all have different gifts.
We all have different talents.
We all have different abilities.
We all have a sense of humor.
We all have unique personalities.
We all have a favorite color.
We all have a preference for certain types of music.
Children with disabilities are kids. Kids.
They are made up of so much more than their diagnosis.
The best way to be comfortable with disability is to be around it. If you do not have a friend who has a child with special needs, then make a point to befriend someone from your church, or your mom’s group, or the parent you see at the park or public library. Who knows, you might discover we are a pretty “normal” bunch.