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December 6, 2022

Talking About Disabilities



Talking About Disabilities

Full2376.jpgPop quiz: Your child comes home from kindergarten and exclaims “Mommy! I played with the baddest boy in the class today!”, referring to a child with Down syndrome. Do you:

A) Discuss the damaging nature of value judgments about people.
B) Enlighten him about “people-first language” (It’s not a bad boy,” it’s a “boy who has badness.”
C) Tell him the correct name for the boy’s disability and describe a few common characteristics found in people who have it.
D) Encourage him to tell you more.

The correct answer is “D,” but while the other options probably struck you as being inappropriate for a 5- or 6-year-old, they do have merit for children at different developmental stages. The key to talking with your kids about disabilities issues is to know your audience. Following are a few ideas for discussing disability with typically developing children at various stages of development.

Preschoolers and Young Children

It’s not unusual for older preschoolers and younger school-aged children to notice and ask questions about the people around them with disabilities. No need to go on a panicked search for a tots’ sensitivity training program; noticing differences helps children figure out what makes them unique. The point to remember when young children talk about differences is that they’re not making value judgments – at least not yet.

So why did the 5-year-old describe his classmate as “the baddest,” you might ask, if he wasn’t making a value judgment? Probably because he didn’t have a better word to describe him. Limited vocabularies in younger children can lead to some interesting descriptions of their worlds. That’s why it’s important to ask for more information.

It turns out that in this case (yes, it really happened), the little girl called her classmate with Downs the “baddest” because she noticed that he required more attention from the teacher and must have, therefore, been bad. This kind of clarification can open the door for a short and simple discussion of why some children may need more help than others.

Two good points to remember when talking with 3- to 6-year-olds about disability issues are:

1. Children of this age will use limited life experiences and
“intuitive” (not rational) logic to make sense of worlds. They
need gentle help straightening out their sometimes-faulty
conclusions.

2. Keeping explanations short and vocabulary simple will help
with understanding.

In contrast to the young child, elementary school-age children are beginning to compare themselves to their peers in a more evaluative manner. Psychologist Erik Erikson dubbed this developmental stage the period of “industry versus inferiority.” As children begin to progress through elementary school they become increasingly aware of the evaluation process and with it, the ranking process that labels them as “industrious” or “inferior.”

They may not understand stanines and percentiles, but they know who got all the spelling words right on Friday’s test and who has the coolest Yugio cards. They also begin to notice more keenly who walks or talks differently, who’s struggling in class and who has trouble in P.E. And it begins to matter, not because elementary school-age children are inherently evil, but because their self-esteem tends to suffer the more they compare themselves to their peers.

Focusing on those who perform worse than we do is a natural coping mechanism. The key with this age group is to find teachable, not “preachable” moments. In other words, help them to understand their disabled peers’ differences. Help them realize that a person is not defined by his disability. That’s the point of “people first” language. You wouldn’t say “that freckles guy” or “that high voice girl;” why say “that Down syndrome kid”?


I like to take advantage of teachable moments during everyday activities. One such moment occurred recently while having breakfast with my son at his elementary school. One of our breakfast companions noticed some children using sign language. “What’re they doing?” he asked. “They’re talking with their hands,” I answered. “How do they do that?” the boy asked. “They have signs for the words that we say to each other with our voices and hear with our ears, so that they can talk without being able to hear each other.” He mulled that over as he chewed. “Is that why they have those things on their ears?” he asked. This led to a simple explanation of how hearing aids work.

He mulled some more. “Blind people use those?” he asked at last. “Nah” I said, “but they have other things that help them.” “Like what?” This lead to a brief discussion of adaptive movies and TV for the visually impaired which led him back to his original topic of the movie he had seen where “the guy was killed by a staple gun.” Sometimes teachable moments are brief, but they are still valuable.

On another occasion our dining partners – brother and sister Andrew and Michaela – delighted us with a description of Michaela’s Turner’s syndrome and how it makes her look younger than she is.

Michaela’s differences were clearly not seen as a problem, but as something that made her special, kind of like being double-jointed or speaking two languages: a reminder that elementary school age kids have much less baggage about disabilities than their parents do. Not surprisingly, Michaela’s mom later shared with me that she has always reminded Michaela that her Turner’s Syndrome “is not who she is, but a small part of who she is.”

Unfortunately, middle school heralds more intense comparisons, and more intense “dissing” of kids who don’t measure up in one way or another. In her insightful look into the lives of middle schoolers, Linda Perlstein, author of Not Much Just Chillin’: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers (Ballantine Books; $13.95), includes a chapter entitled “I Barely Ever Have a Chance to Make Fun of Anyone.” In it, she describes an 11-year-old boy who found himself to be relatively low on the social food chain. His major complaint was not, however, that kids made fun of him, but that he hardly had anybody below him on the “food chain” … to make fun of – a chilling reminder of the nature of middle-school life. Perlstein suggests that the behavior of attacking those lower on the totem pole peaks during preadolescence.

By the time my son enters middle school I doubt he will tolerate my joining him for breakfast. I imagine he won’t tolerate a lot of things I want to do for him because middle school is all about not being branded as deficient in any way. No room for mama’s boys at the cool table. I don’t wish a seat at the cool table for him, but rather a deeply internalized compassion for the children around him with differences. This is important not only because I want Nate to be a kind kid, but also because Nate has differences as well, and I want him to model for others how he would like to be treated.

For a time I know the teachable moments about these matters will look like “preaching” to my son and his classmates. But I hope I’ll have the guts to intrude into his life when it comes to the important stuff. I hope I’ll ask the hard questions, and offer guidance knowing that despite appearances, he still wants and needs it.

I hope his school will be a place where teachers and administrators insist upon an atmosphere of acceptance. And finally, I hope that there will be some brave kids at his school who will risk social status to include him. Do you hope your child becomes one of those kids? Watch for teachable moments, and encourage them to “tell you more” about their thoughts on disability. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Nancy Nolan serves on the faculty of Vanderbilt University, is an educational consultant and child advocate. She lives in Nashville with her husband, son and Amos the dog.

additional reading

One great way to naturally open up discussions about disability issues is by reading books about disabilities with your children. Reading stories about characters with disabilities helps children realize there are more similarities than differences between people with and without disabilities. Here are a few good ones to start with.

Big Mama
by Tony Crunk
(Farrar, Straus, Giroux; $5.95)

Ian’s Walk
by Laurie Lears
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $6.95)

Al Capone Does My Shirts
by Gennifer Choldenko
(Puffin; $15.99)

How Smudge Came
by Nan Gregory and
Ron Lightburn
(Red Deer Press; $15.95)

Rolling Along With Goldilocks and the Three Bears
by Cindy Meyers
(Woodbine House; $14.95)

Mama Zooms
by Jane Cowen-Fletcher
(Scholastic; $4.99)

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