10 Strategies for Talking to Kids About Disability

Whether it is a person who uses a wheelchair that you see in the grocery store, a child in their class that has Autism, or a sibling with ADHD your child has someone in their life that has a disability that they might have questions about. Talking openly and honestly about disability with your kids is a critical first step in living in a more inclusive community that celebrates and embraces diversity.

A young girl hands a young boy with disabilities some flowers
Talk to your kids about disability.

1. Embrace your child’s curiosity. Kids are naturally curious and highly observant. They are constantly taking in new information and learning about the world, themselves and each other. Research has shown that babies start to notice differences in race as early as six months old, are able to notice gender differences by the time they are one and by three years old they are able to notice differences in physical ability. Diversity is a critical piece of the human experience, yet, adults are often hesitant to talk about differences with kids because they don’t want to draw attention to them. However, whether or not you talk about differences be that of race, gender, or ability, kids notice them. By not talking openly and allowing kids to ask their questions, kids are taught that it is a rude or taboo topic.

So let kids ask their questions. When your child asks a question about someone with a disability consider it an opportunity to talk about a new and interesting topic rather than turning disability into a topic to be avoided.

2. Be honest and direct. Give direct answers to your child’s inquiry. For example, if a child asks, “Why can’t she walk?” if you reply with a response like, “Oh, we don’t need to talk about that right now” or “It’s okay that she doesn’t’ walk, she has her wheelchair to help her” you are not really answering their question and the child is left wondering. Instead, you could say “ Are you curious about how Therese moves? We can go talk to her and ask her to tell us more about herself if you’d like.”

With younger kids a simple statement will normally give them what they are looking for. For example, in response to the question “What is that thing in his stomach?” you could reply, “This is Jack’s feeding tube. Some people eat through their mouth like you do, and others eat through their stomach like Jack.” Simple. Honest. Direct.

As children get older, you may give a more complex response such as “Some kids have medical problems that make it hard for them to get enough nutrition by mouth. A g-tube is a tube that brings food directly to the stomach. It’s one of the ways doctors can make sure kids who have trouble eating get the food they need to grow.” By elementary age or middle school kids become more aware of less-visible disabilities like those associated with learning or behavior. Again, try to answer your child’s questions with facts and be honest. If you don’t know much about the person your child is asking about, find a way to respectfully talk with that child’s family or teachers to learn more or facilitate a conversation between the children themselves.

3. Avoid making assumptions and interpretations. Whether you know the person your child is asking about or not, avoid adding your interpretation of how a person may feel about their disability or what caused it. You don’t know what that person is feeling or experiencing if you haven’t taken the time to get to know them.

There are many assumptions and misconceptions about disability that hide under the surface of our interactions such as “people with disabilities are special and should be treated differently” or “people with disabilities lives are hard and challenging.” These incorrect assumptions stem from fear, lack of understanding and/or prejudice. You can help your children talk about disability in a more accurate and respectful way by avoiding assumptions and taking the time to get to know someone on an individual level.

4. Keep your explanations positive. Kids are like sponges. If you use positive language with your child, they will continue to use that kind of language on their own. For example, explain that hearing aids help others hear and wheelchairs help others move around, instead of using a negative connotation (he can’t hear, she can’t walk, etc.) Use the term “disability,” and take the following terms out of your vocabulary when talking about or talking to people with disabilities. Don’t use the terms “handicapped,” “differently-abled,” or “special needs” or “retarded” as these terms frame disability as a negative thing and thus further perpetuate the exclusion, isolation and negative stigma of people with disabilities.

Two lifelong friends smile for the camera.
so much is said with a smile

5. Lead by example. Kids look to adults for guidance on how to act, especially if they are in a new or unfamiliar setting. If you stare, point, quietly move to the other side of the street, whisper about someone, talk down to, or raise your voice high like you would a little child when talking to someone with a disability, your child will see, hear and internalize those behaviors and knee-jerk reactions. Take the time to become aware of your own attitudes, beliefs and assumptions around disability before talking to your kids. When you begin talking with your child about disability, actively counter any negative attitudes or beliefs you may have developed. Reading and analysing your reactions to the Dear Everybody position paper is a good place to start this kind of work. If you approach someone with kindness, openness, respect and curiosity your kids will do the same. For more information on respectful and positive language to use check out last week’s blog. Read more about positive language to use when talking about disability.

6. Prepare for tough questions and avoid shushing their questions. It is not uncommon for kids to ask questions like, “What’s wrong with that girl?” When an adult hears this, they often try to shush their kids. They are embarrassed that their child said something rude and potentially hurtful to another person. However, it is key to remember that children are not trying to be rude, they are trying to make sense of what they are seeing. A question like that however can be damaging if not addressed in an appropriate way. Explain to your kids that there is nothing wrong with people with disabilities. Explain that a child may have trouble talking or difficulty in a group situation but that doesn’t mean there’s something “wrong” with them.

Here are examples of some tough questions we get asked often at the PlayGarden.

How can you prepare yourself to be ready to answer these kinds of questions with your kids or the kids you work with?

Is he really 5?

Why can’t she walk?

Can he talk? Will he learn how to talk?

What’s that thing? (in reference to… tracheostomy tube, a g-tube, a ventilator, or orthotics).

Why does she make those sounds?

Why does she always do that? (in reference to self-stimulating behaviors)

What is that in her stomach? (in reference to a g-tube)

Why does he eat that way?

Why doesn’t ________come to circle time?


7. Talk about human diversity (and neuro-diversity) with your kids.

We are all different in some way and that we all do things every day to adjust to our unique circumstances. For example, someone who wears glass uses them to correct blurry vision, just as someone who is non-verbal may use an assistive device like an ipad to communicate. None of these things are “wrong” they are just different ways of being in the world. Kids use the word “wrong” because they have been socialized by adults and society’s attitudes about what is considered “normal” versus “abnormal”.

We can expand the notion of “normal” by talking about neurodiversity with kids and talking about how ALL body types, ways of moving, communicating, thinking and behaving are normal and healthy.

8. Emphasize similarities and shared interests.

Avoid focusing solely on differences, doing so sends the message that people with disabilities are inherently different than the other kids. Instead, emphasize similarities. ALL kids are kids first and foremost and everyone wants the same things- to have friends, to play, to be loved, to laugh, feel included and to participate in activities together with their friends and family. We are relational beings at our core and emphasizing similarities helps kids relate to one another. The more we can relate to each other the more understanding, compassion and interest we can develop. This is true in any teaching context across all different ages. What is something that the kids have in common? Are they both learning something new they could share with each other? Are they the same age? Go to the same school? Or like the same activities?

9. Learn about disabilities together.

As kids get older they are able to ask more complex questions and are hoping to get more complex responses. Take your kids questions as opportunities to learn about different disabilities together. What do you know about Downs Syndrome? Autism Spectrum Disorder? Cerebral Palsy? Sensory Processing Disorder? If your child asks about one of these and you don’t feel prepared to answer your child’s question in the moment you can always say, “ I’m not sure. I will think about it and get back to you.” or “ I don’t’ know much about Cerebral Palsy, let’s learn more about it together.”

10. Facilitate conversation.

No matter the age, social interaction with kids and teens stems from having shared experiences together. In school settings taking classes together, participating in an after school club together or sport create these opportunities. Outside of school, kids interact with each other in places like the playground. For some kids, making a friend on the playground is easy. For others, and many children with disabilities this is not as easy. Adults can help kids with and without disabilities talk to each other, to help them find common ground, understand different forms of communication, slow down a conversation if kids need more time to process or to help the kids really hear what the other said.

A group of kids sit at a picnic table for an art class.
Before each art class, Artist Arni facilitates conversation between participants.


Have questions, comments or feedback about this blog you’d like to share with us? Send us an email to hannah@seattleplaygarden.org

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