There is a big difference between the way children I am related to interact with me compared to the children of strangers who might encounter me for the first time, perhaps as they walk towards me on the street, or seeing me in a crowded restaurant, or waiting in line at the supermarket checkout.
While I don’t have any children myself, I do have nieces and nephews. The eldest is very nearly an adult, the youngest was brought in his mother’s arms in a rabbit onesie for a family meal at Easter.
Children who have grown up around me aren’t particularly curious about why I use a wheelchair or even what my disability is. I would guess that my sisters and other relatives have probably spoken to them and answered their questions about disability, if they have ever come up. I don’t know. We really haven’t discussed it. One of my nieces must have been nearly four when I had my leg amputated. She either didn’t notice or it didn’t bother her enough to ask about it.
The conversations I have with relatives don’t tend to focus much on disability and if they do, they are not usually about disability as an abstract concept. The conversations I have with family relate back to my life and their lives and our lives together. Disability is a big part of who I am, so it’s bound to come up but there is always a context to it with family.
With people who have not experienced disability first hand, it is a much more abstract concept. It is clear to me by dint of my experiences with able bodied strangers that people can find it difficult to know how to act around me. A lot of able bodied people aren’t really sure what to think and many have conveyed to me that they are nervous about saying the wrong thing. The net effect of this discomfort can be both frustrating and comical. Sometimes it is both at the same time. It’s hard sometimes just to exist in a world that isn’t sure how to process you as a concept.
It must be difficult then for parents or other caregivers to know just what to do or say when children in their care encounter a person with a disability, perhaps for the first time.
Often, especially if the child is very young, they will ask unapologetically loudly something like, “Why are they in a wheelchair?” More often than not, there will be a comment with pointing. Something like, “Hey, look!”
Try not to feel too embarrassed. We get it a lot. I can only speak for myself but I don’t find the genuine curiosity of children to be a problem at all. We are pretty used to answering questions or letting innocent comments float by. If you are embarrassed, the child might think there was something to be uncomfortable about and their future encounters with disabled people might become associated with that feeling. While I don’t enjoyed being stared at, being made to feel invisible by people who are doing their best not to stare is just as uncomfortable. Better to allow the child to feel comfortable with exploring the idea of difference.
For older children, I think it’s important to instil the idea that learning about people who are different to them is good and healthy but we should also be allowed our privacy.
Throughout my life, I have had a great many inappropriate questions asked by both older children and adults who think that they are entitled to know things about me that are really none of their business. Nobody really needs to know a lot of the answers to questions asked in public to people with disabilities.
Questions like, “Do you sleep on a bed? How do you get into bed?” or “How do you go to the toilet?” really should be viewed as too personal and information given to children about the actual mechanics of bodily functions in people with disabilities should, in my view, be kept to a minimum. In my experience, children don’t really want to know those details anyway. What they want is for things to make sense to them.
You can model appropriate behaviour for children by not asking questions that come purely from curiosity and in particular those questions that might be personal or embarrassing to answer. Making jokes about a person’s disability, however well intentioned, is also not appropriate behaviour. Not all of us are going to have the same sense of humour and there is a very fine line between laughing with someone and at them if you don’t know a person.
It’s important that children view people with disabilities as people. They will most easily do this if you model that behaviour to them. Keep in mind that I likely have things to do just like you. I’m happy to answer simple questions from children but you might have to answer any questions requiring more time and thought, later. You know best what your child will understand. Lastly, please don’t yank your child away from me and tell them off if they ask me a question. I don’t want to be responsible for your child being told off for their curiosity.
While there are a few tips I can give parents and caregivers on how to teach a child about disability, I firmly believe that modelling things like an interest in diversity and difference, a curiosity in the world around us and respect for others is much more important and worthwhile than the specific content of any conversation you might have with a child about disability.