Children, by their very nature, are an inquisitive lot. They have questions, test boundaries, and will say and do things without fully understanding the consequences.
This can create awkward situations when children come in contact with a disabled individual. Unless a child has had the opportunity to learn about disability etiquette, chances are their interaction with someone who is disabled could be unintentionally hurtful.
Here are some guidelines you can discuss with a child, especially if you know in advance that the child will be in proximity to a disabled person near term.
- The first and most obvious is to talk to your child about how people come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, colors and abilities. Although a person may look or act different on the outside, stress to your child that people are very much alike on the inside. Encourage your child to ask questions and show them examples of disabled people and how they interact in the world. It is never too early to begin teaching your child to be empathetic.
- Make sure your child understands that wheelchairs, canes, crutches, walkers or service dogs are not toys that are meant to be played with, leaned on, stared at, or pointed to. Explain that they are an extension of the disabled person, just as your child’s fingers, toes and other body parts are an important part of who they are.
- Make sure your child understands that not every disability can be seen. People with mental illnesses or diseases may only occasionally show outward signs of symptoms, but that’s not always the case. If your child regularly interacts with someone who has intermittent symptoms, on some days the disabled person may require the use of a service dog, a cane, or another assistance device. When that happens, you child may be surprised or blurt out inappropriate comments because they have been taken off guard. As an adult, it’s important to prep a child and teach them respectful boundaries.
- One of the most common interactions with a disabled person that will pique the curiosity of a child is when a service animal is involved. Children naturally gravitate toward dogs and may instinctively try to pet the dog or want to play with it. It’s vital to let the child know that the animal is working and should not be disturbed. Doing so could put the disabled person in harm’s way. On the other hand, if your child is afraid of dogs, make sure to explain to them that service dogs are specifically chosen because they are smart, safe and calm around people.
- If your child has a classmate who is disabled, encourage them to include the child into play time. Chances are that a teacher will also help in this regard, but children will find themselves with minimal supervision at times, and so it’s best to make sure your child is inclusive as much as possible.
- If the person your child is interacting with has a hearing disability, teach them to talk normally and to face the person with the hearing problem to make it possible to read lips. And if the person uses a hearing aid, let your child know there is no need to shout because the hearing aid will be calibrated to normal speaking levels.
In all instances, communication with children is the key. Encourage them to ask questions – they are sure to have several. When a child stumbles while interacting with a disabled person, use it as a teachable moment, turning it into a positive experience that the child can use going forward.