Focusing on the things that we have in common with one another is very important for building relationships and empathy, but so is giving attention to our differences. We all notice differences, so not talking about them just leads to confusion and misunderstanding. There’s nothing wrong with being different, but if it’s something we avoid discussing, then kids (who eventually become adults) will assume that it *is* wrong. So, in no particular order, here are 5 reasons why it’s important to discuss disabilities with kids:
1) Avoid awkward situations
How many of us have stories about a kid pointing to someone in a wheelchair or with a limb difference and loudly asking, “What’s wrong with them?!”. The parent, completely mortified, hushes the kid and shoos them away. Not only is the parent embarrassed, but the kid may have a negative association with people in wheelchairs now. That interaction plants the subconscious seed that “this is something negative and shameful.”
Now there’s lots of advice out there about how to handle that situation (here’s a piece written by a wheelchair user: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/oct/11/dont-tell-your-child-not-to-stare-at-disabled-people-we-are-already-invisible-enough), but how great would it be if you could avoid the awkwardness in the first place? You may not be able to avoid it completely because there’s no way to teach kids about every single different person they might encounter, but the more you talk about the fact that people are different, the less different people will seem to them. One thing to encourage conversation is to read books that have characters with disabilities in them. It doesn’t have to be about disabilities, but if there is an illustration that shows someone in a wheelchair or wearing hearing aids, point that out and have a discussion, so that when they meet someone in real life, it will seem totally normal.
2) Show them that there’s no shame in being different
How boring would life be if we were all the same? And yet how many of us have, at one point or another, tried to hide something about ourselves in order to “be normal”. Talking about differences in a positive manner, shows kids that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Whether they have a disability or not, it’s important that kids realize being different is normal. For all it’s issues, social media has actually been great for helping people to realize that they are not alone in their uniqueness.
3) Help them identify how they are unique
I said it once, and I’m going to say it approximately 235,084,973,204,106 more times: everyone is different. Disabilities are just differences that medicine and/or society has deemed “atypical”. We all have things we can do and things we can’t do, and talking with kids about it, whether they have a disability or not, is a gateway to helping them identify their strengths and passions.
4) Increase self-esteem & reduce bullying
Why do kids (and adults, unfortunately) bully others? Usually it is because they don’t feel confident in themselves so they treat others negatively to make themselves feel more powerful or in control. Unfortunately people with disabilities who have very obvious differences often become the targets. If we talk to kids openly about differences and disabilities and build up their confidence, they won’t feel the need to seek confidence by hurting others.
Even if the school bully still exists, creating a generation of confident kids is going to do a lot to stop the spread of negativity. It’s like herd immunity, but for self-esteem. As more kids embrace their own differences and appreciate the differences of others, the bullies have less impact.
5) Gain new perspectives
In case you haven’t been beaten over the head with it enough, talking to kids about disabilities not only benefits the kids who have identified disabilities, it benefits the kids without disabilities, too. Learning “that person is blind and needs to listen to things to understand” or “that person is deaf and needs to see things to understand”, gets the wheels turning in a person’s head, “well how do I understand things best?” Just because someone doesn’t have a recognized disability doesn’t mean that they can’t benefit from knowing their strengths and weaknesses.
Those kids who look at things from different perspectives are going to become adults who will create a more inclusive world. They will become store managers who realize that widening the aisles will make it easier for people with wheelchairs to navigate (as well as people with strollers). They will become video producers who realize that adding captions is necessary for people who are deaf to consume their media (as well as people who like to watch things on mute). They will become restaurant owners who realize that taking measures to reduce background noise will make their patrons with sensory sensitivities more comfortable (and everyone, really).
Having unique perspectives and celebrating differences benefits everyone!