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Talking to children about disability

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Anyone with children will know that sinking feeling when their child points at someone in a wheelchair and asks in a loud voice: “mum, what’s wrong with that person?”

It can be one of those situations when you wish the ground would open up and swallow you so that you can avoid the question.

But while avoidance may be the easy option, answering your child honestly is always the best policy.
Today is International Day of People with Disability, which is held every year on December 3. It’s a day which aims to increase public awareness, understanding and inclusion of people with disability and recognise and celebrate their achievements and contributions.

It’s also a good time to talk about how to talk to children about disability, and Goodstart Early Learning’s national lead, social inclusion, Penny Markham, has some tips to share.

Ms Markham said being open and honest about our differences were the keys to talking to children about disability.

“I think firstly, that it’s important to assure children that it’s okay to notice differences. We are all different in many ways and ignoring rather than recognising that, shuts down our appreciation of difference and the diversity that our differences bring to our learning and relationships, ,” Ms Markham said. 

“For example, if your child has pointed out someone in a wheelchair you can use the opportunity to talk to them about how the wheelchair helps them move around.  In this way you acknowledge what your child has noticed and given them a factual explanation for what the wheelchair is used for. “She said being factual about disabilities was also very important.

“I remember when my son was about three years old, we walked into a supermarket and my son noticed a man with one eye. He called out ‘Mum, that man has one eye’. And rather than telling him to be quiet, I just said yes, the man does have one eye.

“The man just smiled at me and as I had acknowledged what my son had noticed very factually, he didn’t feel the need to insist or keep saying it over and over, which is something that many parents face if they try to ignore their child’s natural curiosity.”

Key points to talking to children about disability

Be respectful and factual

Ms Markham said as parents and educators, it is important to ensure that we are using terminology that is respectful and factual.

“It’s important to avoid offensive words related to disability. Some words that have been used in the past to describe disability are extremely offensive. Using language that is strengths-based and highlights the positives about what children with a disability can do is far more respectful and inclusive and helps children learn more about how we all have differing abilities,” she said.

It’s also important to note that some children will have special equipment such as walkers, frames, wheelchairs and communication devices and children need to learn to respect and understand how their little friends use these and avoid playing with this equipment. Children will be curious about special equipment so explaining their use is very encouraged to build their understanding.
Emphasize the similarities

Rather than concentrating on the differences, it’s also important to point out what we have in common with others such as going to the same early learning centre, eating similar food, enjoying being with friends and enjoying feeling loved or being part of our group of friends at our early learning centre.

“As much as it’s okay to notice differences and talk about them factually, it’s equally as good to notice and talk about similarities too. Encouraging children to think about what we all need such as love, play and friends helps children recognize that we are similar and helps build a sense of empathy and care for others.”

Be aware of teasing and excluding

If children are teasing a person with a disability, it’s best to step in immediately and let them know that it’s not the way we treat people. Children with disabilities can often be teased or excluded and it’s important to teach children that those words and behaviours can hurt.

“I would always expect educators and parents to 100 per cent address things if children are talking in in ways that exclude or belittle others,” Ms Markham said.

“We need to teach our children to help each other out, we need to teach them empathy, and we need to teach them understanding.”

“One way of doing this is by talking generally with children about the ways they can help their friends out. This conversation doesn’t have to focus on disability per se, it can be a discussion that children and parents or teachers engage in to explore how we provide care to friends, family and each other. Educators can then use these discussions to remind children about the ways we can look after and out for each other, especially if they notice more negative comments and behaviours.”

Ask questions

If your children have more questions, go home and find out more about what they need to know. Again, it’s all about being factual and responding to their curiosity by explaining and building their understanding.
Sometimes children will ask their little friends questions and Ms Markham recommends not shutting down curious questions but enabling children to talk to each other. For example, a child might ask their friend with a walking frame why they need it. If a child is curious and another child is happy to respond or for the teacher to respond these conversations don’t need to be shut down as they are opportunities for children to learn more about each other and understand each other.

Parents and educators can also use children’s books to help explain disability to children. Here are a range of recommended children’s books:
  • Meet Clarabelle Blue
  • We’ll Paint the Octopus Red
  • We’re Amazing 1,2, 3! A story about friendship and autism
  • Don’t Call Me Special
  • I See Things Differently
  • The Pirate of Kindergarten
  • A Different Little Doggy
  • We Can Do It
To find out more about International Day of People with Disability, visit

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