One question I get a lot is how parents can teach kids about peers with disabilities. I’m a mom to a kid that has a wheelchair, trach/vent, Hydrocephalus, a heart repair scar, and a cochlear implant. I see the curiosities. I see kids asking their parents about Addie. I see parents darting their eyes, unsure of what to say. I’m here to tell you- it’s not as complicated to teach kids about peers with disabilities as you think. Not every family may agree with my views, but I think many families will.
Educate Your Kids With Basics- One of the best things you can do to introduce and teach your kids about peers with disabilities is to get your hands on books about special needs. Books are a great way to learn about engaging with disabled. Books about varying special needs have preferred language and are a great way for kids to make the connection between books and their lives.
Teach Your Kid Everyone Is Different- God created every single person with purpose. You, me, Addie, and everyone else are all uniquely made. Playing with kids of all different ethnicities, backgrounds, and abilities is one helpful way to start this process. Look for ways in your community that you and your family can spend time with peers with special needs. In the Waco/Central Texas area we are blessed to have No Limitations Athletics. It’s an organization free to special needs families and they are always looking for volunteers to help! If you’re local, it’s an amazing organization to be a part of and a great way to learn about various special needs.
Be Curious, But Kind- There is nothing wrong with curiosity. Curiosity is how we naturally learn. There is a line though between curiosity and rudeness. Encourage your child to ask you, the peer with special needs, or their parent/caregiver their questions. More than anything, special needs families would rather you ask questions out of curiosity than stare, make ugly looks, or shoo your child away.
Asking questions is a great way to learn. Many times kids have seen Addie and have said, “Why does she have those cords?” or “What’s that around her neck?” Since Addie is non-verbal, I’m always happy to answer, especially when a parent is unsure. I might chime in (especially when the parent has no idea what to do), “This is Addie! These cords help Addie breathe because she can’t on her own. Do you see how you breathe? Take a big breath! This machine does that for Addie. Isn’t it cool?” Immediately kids seem more at ease, less worried, and find it is pretty cool! Please know that it is not the duty of the peer with special needs or their family to educate you, but typically many families will be happy to share more if you ask kindly.
What should you do if your child asks a rude (or seemingly rude) question? Honestly- correct them. Correcting your child is key to helping them understand the best ways to address special needs topics. Shaming never needs to happen, but calmly reframe their question in a kinder way. Saying nothing when asking a rude question does not help one bit though. We all understand that (especially younger) kids lack tact. How you calmly react and help them will go miles. You may feel embarrassed, but know that you’ll go FAR in our book if you make it a teaching lesson on how to say things in a better way.
Find Common Ground- This has been hands down one of the best things I’ve found to teach kids about peers with disabilities and varying special needs. In many situations, I help break the ice since Addie is non-verbal, but it’s so refreshing when others break the ice first. Addie loves wearing bows in her hair, so if I see a little girl curious about her, I say, “Hi! This is Addie! What’s your name? I see you have a bow in your hair! Addie loves bows too. Doesn’t she look great with it?” Sometimes people find their own common ground without us initiating. They’ll say things like “This little girl has a pink wheelchair! You love the color pink too. Let’s tell her we like her wheelchair!” Something as simple as an icebreaker with common ground goes a long way in beginning the foundation.
Include Them In Activities- A child with a disability or that has special needs is still a person and including them in activities is always appreciated. They enjoy activities just as much as other kids and want friends just like anyone else. As your child grows up, encourage them to invite their peers with special needs to play, hang out outside of school, join extracurriculars, and more. If your child is worried about logistics or accommodations, encourage your child to ask you, a teacher, or the parent on the best ways to include their friend with special needs.
Allow Them A Safe Place To Ask Questions- The best thing you can do for your child is to give a safe place. Allow open conversations in your home. Read those books with kiddos that have disabilities or special needs and talk about them. When you don’t have these conversations and when you don’t allow your child to spend time with peers that are different, fear-based hate can be created. If you aren’t sure how to answer your child, do some research and come back to them, never assume.
Bullying is a big deal and is a great topic of conversation within your safe place. Is your child seeing others that are different being made fun of? Encourage them to be a friend and not a bully. Ending bullying is an awesome thing, and when your child helps quash it, it is a beautiful thing.
Educate Yourself Too- As a parent, it’s your job to teach your kid about many things. We know that learning starts at home, and in order to help your child, you need to be more informed. Your child doesn’t need to be lectured or overwhelmed with facts about disabilities or other special needs. They just want you to help them understand what’s going on and how to be compassionate. The more you know, the more confident be when your child has questions. Inclusion means contributing, not just passively watching, but participating. Education absolutely helps inclusion.
Remind Your Child To Be Themselves- The best thing your child can do is just be themselves. Just because a peer has a disability it doesn’t change that they’re just a person. A non-verbal kid like Addie may not be able to participate in some things, but they enjoy your child just being themselves around them. Have a quiet kid? Maybe they can offer help to their disabled peer during activities. Have a more outgoing kid? Maybe they will want to chat with their peer or be silly with them. Whatever their personality, it is best to encourage your child to just be themselves.
I hope this guide has been helpful! I’m always happy to speak more on social media through DM on this. I love hearing from our readers and am happy to answer any more kind questions you have on this topic.