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How to Talk to your Child About Disabilites

What your grade-schooler knows ---and needs to know

If your child hasn't already encountered people with disabilities, they will at some point in their school, where children with special needs may even be in the same classroom.  Be ready! Your curious grade-schooler will ask lots of questions.

How you respond will affect the way your child thinks about disabilities and treats others as they grow up.  Five-to-8 year-olds are ready to learn how to be polite, fair and helpful

In addition to disabilities with obvious physical signs, your child will start tuning in to more subtle hearing, learning, and behavioral disabilities.  Your school-age child might notice that a child doesn't talk, acts differently, takes longer to learn or appears young for his age.  Your child is likely to have many questions about the person and the cause of her difference/disability.  That's your opportunity to foster an attitude of acceptance and inclusion by talking about the differences that are a part of your child's world and how everyone should be treated with respect.

How to talk to your child about people with disabilities.

Address your child's curiosity.  If you notice your child staring, take the lead.  You might say, "I noticed you saw that little girl has a harder time walking than you do.  She has cerebral palsy, which makes her muscles work a little differently.  But I bet she loves the Disney princesses just like you -- did you see her purse?"

Ask if  your child has questions.  I you know the family or the person with the disability, ask them yourself or let you child ask.

Answer questions matter-of-factly.  Susan Linn, a psychologist. suggests that you avoid layering on emotion or going into detail.  She offers this response to a question about a person in a wheelchair: "I imagine he may be having problems with his legs.  He can't walk."

Watch your words.  Take care in how you describe people with disabilities -- your child is listening.  Aviod outdated, derogatory terms like 'crippled' ,'retarded', and 'handicapped.  Put the emphais on the person and not the disability.  Say 'the child who is autistic' versus 'that autistic child.'  Also avoid referring to nondisabled kids as 'normal,' since it implies abnormality or a defect in others.

When you and you child encounter someone with a disability, there's no need to say things like 'Don't stare' or 'Let's keep moving.'  Pelple with disabilities may feel stigmatized by those who avoid them, and your child might get the impression that he can't ask you questions.  Instead, when your child stares and says, 'What's wrong with that lady?' simply explain that the person walks or communicates in a different way.

Emphasize what's the same.  A kid may be disabled, but he's still a kid.  Talk to your child about what a classmate or neighbor with a disability has in common with others -- the same age, school, neighborhod, a favorite hobby or sport.

Take advantage of teaching moments.  If your child starts asking detailed questions, offer to help him find answers at home.  Go online together to learn more about Asperger's syndrome or Down syndrome.  Every time your child asks a question, it's a chance to teach awareness and sensitivity.

Be sure to not only point out what people with disabilities can't do but what they can.

Don't allow jokes or bullying.  Kids with special needs are more likely to be bulllied and abused in every way -- they're just easier targets.  If you hear your child or her friends referring to another kid or adult as 'dumb' or 'retarded' explain just how much those words hurt.  Teach him to apologize when he has hurt another persons feelings and not shown them respect. 

Answeres to common questions about disabilities

Why doesn't she talk like me?  If you know the answer or can guess, tell your child in terms she'll understand:  "She has trouble with the muscles that make it easy to talk."

Is he retarded or something?  Let your child know that 'retarded' is a hurtful word.  Say, "No, He has something wrong with his brain and he has a hard time talking and learning.  But otherwise, he's just like everyone else."

Why does she act like that (yell, throw things, make noises, cry and hide)?  Talk about how people with disabilities might struggle with new or different things and how frustrating that can be.  "These children have outbutsts or melt downs because they may be scared or frustrated and don't know how to use their words to share how they feel."

Why did that happen to him?  Explain that some people are born with disabilities just like they were born with a certain color hair or eye color.  Once you explain a disability, a grade-schooler might wonder if she can 'catch it' like a cold.  Out of earshot of the person who has a disability, reassure you child that disabilities are not things you can catch.

What else you can do.

Model acceptance by reaching out to those with disabillities.  Say hello with a smile and look and speak to them as you would anyone else.

Tune in to children's shows that have characters with disabilities like Arthur and Between the Lions.

Review your child's book and DVD collections.  If they have no characters with disabilities or if the treatment of characters with disabilities seems outdated, add some fresh additions to the mix.

Embrace any chance to expose you child to people with disabilities.  If you come across a school or after-school program that includes children with disabilities, be open to this opportunity for our child to get used to people with disabilities being part of their experience.

Be open to classroom inclusion.  More and more elementary schools are integrating children with disabilities in to the classroom.  Some parents fear this will take too much of the teacher's attention away from their own kids.  But your child stands to gain, too:  Aside from having the chance to make a new friend, your child can learn kindness, respect and acceptance of all differences as nothing more than just differences, not disabilities.

by Ziba Kashef