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How do I talk to children about disabilities?

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Many parents have had the experience of being out with their child when they encounter someone with disabilities. Children are naturally curious and such encounters may often end in long stares, abrupt questions and perhaps some parental embarrassment. Whether it’s a classmate on the autism spectrum, a family member with Downs Syndrome, or a stranger in a wheelchair, parents need to be prepared to address their child’s curiosity and help them learn from the encounter. Here are a few suggestions on how to discuss disabilities with your child when they come to you with questions:

Explain the disability and any adaptive equipment: When explaining disabilities to your child, be honest and direct and use language they will understand. Approach the conversation naturally instead of winding up for a long, sit down discussion. For example, your child may ask, “Why is that person in a wheelchair?” Consider answering along these lines: “Some people, like you, use your legs to get from one place to another and others may use a wheelchair. Or a cane! Like grandma!” Parents and caregivers can also explain why they may be in a wheelchair (if they know) or by asking the individual in a respectful manner, if your child still has questions. Part of educating children about disabilities is also normalizing disabilities, so we shouldn’t feel embarrassed to discuss it, as long as it is done respectfully and with compassion. 

Another part of the discussion will likely be about any adaptive equipment, like a wheelchair, and what it is. Examples include: hearing aids, walking sticks, g-tubes, prosthetics, scooters, augmented communication devices and more. It’s important to make sure children are aware that adaptive equipment is never a toy and should always be treated with respect.

Teach kindness and empathy: When discussing disabilities with your child, take care to use respectful terminology. There are many words that are derogatory and do not communicate the kindness or empathy we want to teach our children. One of the best ways to teach kindness and empathy is by modeling the behavior we would like to see in our children. Allow them to see you interact with kindness and respect to those around you, whether they have disabilities or not. Help your child to look for the different strengths they themselves have and then also to look for what unique strengths someone with disabilities may have. Coach your child in empathy by asking how they might feel if they were in that person’s shoes. How would they want people to treat them? Would they want to be included in the group? Most people with disabilities want disabilities to feel normalized in society, and we can help do that as parents and caregivers by focusing on every person’s unique strengths and treating all people–those with disabilities and those without–with kindness, dignity and respect.

Highlight similarities: For younger children, highlighting similarities is a great way to show that people with disabilities are regular people, with the same feelings, interests and hobbies that many people without disabilities have. It’s also important to emphasize that while some people with disabilities may look different from us, that doesn’t mean they are scary or someone to fear. Instead of focusing on these differences, bring your child’s attention to their similarities. For example, let’s say they have a student in their class who is hearing impaired. Point out that they have the same eye color or hair color, both love LEGOS or are both good at math. Showing your child the many interests or characteristics of a person with disabilities beyond their disability helps your child to see them as a complete person–where their disability doesn’t define who they are but is instead simply one part of who they are.

Address bullying and discuss its impacts: Parents and caregivers should already be having regular discussions in their homes about bullying, the forms it can take and the harm it can cause. Use these opportunities to also bring people with disabilities into the conversation, as children with disabilities may be picked on more often because of their differences. Teach your child that purposefully hurting anyone’s feelings is wrong and that all children–your child included–have the right to be treated with kindness and respect. It’s also important to teach your child the art of apologizing when they may hurt someone’s feelings, intentionally or not. Set clear expectations for your child when it comes to bullying and focus on building their sense of empathy and compassion throughout their preschool years and beyond.

Read and learn together: Ongoing education about the disabled is important for both children and adults. One of the best ways to raise empathetic children who accept those who are different from them is by keeping the discussion and learning ongoing. Teaching your children about people with disabilities is not a “one and done” lesson, and parents and caregivers can learn alongside their child. There are lots of great children’s books that can help highlight those with disabilities and the challenges they face when it comes to normalizing disabilities. Some include: This Beach is Loud! By Samanda Coterrill, Mama Zooms by Kate Cohen-Fletcher, I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott, My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best, and Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 61 million people–or 1 in 4 adults–are living with a disability in the United States. If your child hasn’t already encountered someone with disabilities, they will before long. Take the time to teach them about people living with disabilities and help normalize how we treat those with disabilities. For more resources on talking to your kids about disabilities, visit www.ada.gov, www.verywellfamily.com, or www.understood.org.


By ABC Quality Team on January 3, 2023