Encountering Disabilities: Teach your children well

Mar 6, 2000

Most of us fail miserably when it comes to teaching our children about disabilities and how to treat people and children with them. We'd like to believe that we are understanding, empathetic and caring, but more often than not, our actions show otherwise.

When encountering disabled or challenged individuals, do you make a point of looking away....ignoring their existence? Do you look at them with a mixture of pity and fear (there but for the grace of God, go I?). Do you whisper something to your companion? Do you shush your child when he asks why that man is in a wheelchair? If so, you are not only doing a disservice to that person, but to your children as well.

As far as I know, children are not born with preconceived notions of handicaps or disabilities. They are learned and since we are first and foremost their teachers, they are learning those behaviors from us. A few years ago, I witnessed a parent teaching this very lesson to their child. I have a great-nephew, Christopher, who was born with a birth defect. A result of amniotic banding....his right arm did not form below the elbow. When Christopher was 4 years old he was fitted with a prosthetic arm. It was a functional arm, complete with metal hooks for grasping. During a visit to my home, I accompanied Christopher to a local indoor playground and was a bit apprehensive about how the other children would react to him. To my delight and amazement, the children were enchanted with his arm. They viewed his arm as something robotic and almost mystical. I even heard one boy remark, "Gee....I wish I had an arm like that!".

These children understood that Christopher was different, yet it didn't matter. In fact, he was COOL. Unfortunately, this young boy's parent did not share his enthusiasm. I watched her look at Christopher with pity and then turn to her companion several times and then whisper something in her ear. I can only imagine what she was saying, but the look on her face spoke volumes. Later, I heard her son talk about Christopher's arm and she quickly shushed him and then hurried him away. That mother lost a golden opportunity for teaching her son about children with disabilities and unfortunately, the lesson she probably had not intended to teach, had already been learned.

While I do not own a crystal ball (unfortunately) and cannot predict the future, this young boy who at the age of 4 was so enchanted by a boy that was different, will more than likely grow up to eventually fear disabilities. His brief, yet positive encounter with Christopher will be forgotten as his mother reinforces her own attitudes about disabilities as he grows into adulthood.

Another childhood friend of mine has a son that was born with undeveloped legs. At the age of two, both legs were amputated above the knee so that he could be properly fitted with a prosthesis. In the presence of her young son, people will frequently tell her that her son is lucky to have such a loving, dedicated mother. They conveniently ignore that this mother is lucky to have been blessed with her son. As she repeatedly tells me, she is a mother. Not a martyr.

I have another friend whom I met online. We corresponded for nearly a year before we agreed to meet (she lived nearby). I was excited to meet this woman....we had so much in common and seemed to share the same enthusiasm for parenting and home birth. Shortly before our meeting, she told me that she was hearing impaired. No problem. No change in plans. We met and have become even better real-life friends. She later told me that I was the only on-line friend that agreed to meet her after she disclosed that she was deaf. The others quietly disappeared....never to be heard from again.

How sad. Not only because they missed out on the opportunity to meet a remarkable person, but because they also reinforced the belief that people who do not meet our narrow definitions of physical perfection, are to be shunned.

Put aside your own fears. When your child asks you why a person is in a wheelchair or why they are moving their hands and not speaking, be honest and say, "Because his/her legs don't work like ours", or "Because he/she cannot hear. He/She uses her hands to communicate". You do not have to get into details. They do not have to know what caused the disability. Use simple terms and remove any degree of fear or pity from your voice or body language. Above all, reinforce that children and people with disabilities are people just like them. More alike than different.

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