By Tara Thompson
It’s funny, when I think back to my childhood I remember thinking that if a child was ‘different’ to me I shouldn’t talk about them or stare because that would be rude and upset them. However, now that I have a daughter with special needs I love it when I witness another child talking about my daughter’s abilities and staring out of curiosity.
I am a bit ashamed to admit it, but even as an adult, prior to having my middle child and not really encountering many children or adults with disabilities I still didn’t quite know how to act and would often shy away from interactions. Not because I thought I was better or because I felt uncomfortable but purely because I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I didn’t want to come across that I felt sorry for them and I felt uneducated, so therefore I wasn’t sure how to act or what to say.
When my daughter was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 7 months old I really didn’t know much about it at all, I just knew it would affect the way she uses her body. But we aren’t meant to know everything, we learn as we go; which is what I have been doing for over 4 years now. Learning about cerebral palsy, learning about autism, learning about seizures. It’s a whole new world I am navigating. But one thing I am now certain of is that how I used to believe I ‘should’ act around people with disabilities was all wrong.
My heart was genuinely in the right place. But I know now that it’s these sort of actions that make disabilities seem different, something to be fearful of, and in fact it’s how exclusion starts.
I often go to the shops with my daughter and hear children ask their parents ‘why does she walk in that?’ but instead of answering and bringing attention to it a lot of parents shy away from the topic and seem embarrassed. Don’t be! It’s fantastic that your child shows curiosity. You may not know what to say and that’s ok.
Explain that it helps her walk. Let my daughter know that your child likes her walker. Ask her about it. If I ever see a child staring at Willow I smile at them, I want them to know its ok to be curious. Staring isn’t rude, it is being inquisitive.
I have had a few parents reach out to tell me that their children love watching Willow’s videos on instagram. Every time I hear this it brings the biggest smile to my face. We share a lot of videos of Willow doing her therapy at home. I love that people are educating their children by showing them these videos because it normalises therapy and disability. Yes, Willow is different in some ways, but we all are. These children will now see another child in a walker and not be confused and think it’s odd. They will think ‘they are just like Willow in her walker’. It becomes normal.
Children will respond to disabilities depending on their experiences and by how they see adults respond. I know that my own children watch very closely how I act in situations, they mimic me and learn from me.
The other day we were at a park and there was a non-verbal child in a wheelchair and they were making loud noises. Willow seemed a bit worried and scared and I noticed my eldest made an attempt not to look over.
Now, before having Willow I may have distracted both of them as I wouldn’t want them to keep staring. But instead I said ‘wow, Willow, she has a cool wheelchair like your friend, and do you know what I think she is having a great time at the park because she is making a lot of loud noises so she must be excited’. The girls were confused as although they have more awareness about disabilities than most children they were unsure as to why she was making those noises and asked more about it.
I explained that people have many different ways to communicate and that’s how she was talking and showing she was happy. Both of their reactions changed and they really didn’t think much of it. To them this was now normal. If we didn’t speak about it they may have viewed the whole encounter differently.
So, if you are a parent that doesn’t know how to teach and educate your children about disability, don’t fret – you really don’t need to think too much about it. Just teach awareness and allow your child to ask questions and show curiosity.
There are so many fantastic books, which can help teach children about disabilities. A lot of disabled children are now being featured in advertising; shows have characters with different capabilities and special needs equipment. There are a lot of parents educating through social media channels too. So, normalise the subject and teach them that although some children may be different to them they are also similar in so many ways too.
You don’t need to have all of the answers for them but you need to be willing to talk about it. This is how inclusion and acceptance begins.