How to Answer Kids' Questions About People with Special Needs

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Kids ask some whopper questions in public. It's just what they do.

For most parents, the natural instinct is to shush them and hope it goes away. But here's the thing. It's so important to let kids explore their curiosity by asking questions. It's how they learn. 

But you never know what they're going to ask. So the best thing you can do is be prepared.

Teaching DEI at Home: Be Prepared for Surprise Disability Questions

There's no way to predict what comes out of kids' mouths. But what you can do is take them aside and privately answer their question simply. If you don't know the answer, be honest and suggest you look it up together.

Even if it's a weird random question about disability, if you dodge it, you'll give the impression that either it's not important, or there's something inherently evil about disability questions. One of the risks here is that kids usually fill in the blanks of missing information with something they hear from an untrustworthy source. Instead, offer a simple, straightforward answer.

Here's an example. Let's say your child asks:

"Can people in wheelchairs drive?" 

You could respond with something simple like:

"Yes. Lots of people in wheelchairs can drive thanks to special cars.‚ÄĚ

You don't need to offer anything beyond that. (Unless of course your child continues to ask questions.) The goal is to provide simple responses that both answer the question directly and also teach empathy.  

Teaching DEI at Home: Questions and Answers About Disability

Heads up. Your curious grade-schooler will no doubt have a slew of awkward questions when they meet a disabled person. Here are some simple questions and answers about disability.

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Are disabilities contagious?
"No disabilities aren't contagious. They're not like the flu or a cold that you can catch from someone else."

Why do they act like that?
"Because part of their brain is different from ours." 

Why doesn't he go to our school?
"Some kids do better in a special school that can give them extra help with reading, writing, walking, talking, and playing with other kids."

Why doesn't she talk like me?
"She has trouble with the muscles that make it possible to talk like other people."

Are they retarded or something?
"First, ‚Äėretarded‚Äô isn't a nice word. Please say mentally disabled instead.¬†To answer your question,¬†their brain functions differently, so¬†they have a harder time talking and learning than most people. But other than that, they're just like you and me."

Why did that happen to him?
"Some people are born with disabilities, and others get hurt or sick and become disabled later in life. He didn’t do anything wrong to deserve the disability. It's just a part of life."  

Is he going to live to be a grown up?
‚ÄúNo one knows the answer to that. But doctors and scientists are working hard to help him live a long, productive life. Even when he's an old man, you can still be his friend.‚ÄĚ

TIP: Remember that kids don't need any information beyond a simple and direct answer to their question. They usually stop listening after they learn what they wanted to know anyway. 

Will they ever be able to walk?
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt know for sure, but I suspect they're working hard along with¬†their doctors and parents to do the best they can.‚ÄĚ

Is she a mommy?
‚ÄúI don't know for sure. She might have a little girl or boy at home that‚Äôs just like you!‚ÄĚ

Why can't he walk like we do?
‚ÄúYou're right. He walks differently than we do. There lots of different medical reasons that control how someone walks.‚ÄĚ

How do people take care of themselves and get around if they are blind?
"People who can’t see find lots of different ways to do the everyday activities just like you and me." 

Teaching DEI at Home: Follow Up

Many questions and concerns can and should come up as your child encounters people with disabilities. Let them know, repeatedly, that they can come to you anytime and ask you anything.  

Keep the conversation going as the weeks/months/years unfold after your child asks a question or comes to you with a concern. Teaching kids that disabled people deserve kindness and respect is not a formal, once-and-done conversation.

Encourage your child to keep asking questions about disability. Integrate lots of ongoing, casual conversations into your daily routine. 

Keep going!

More Resources:

 

If you found this article helpful, please check out How to Respond to Disability Curiosity from Kids. It's a concise guidebook for parents that's full of more suggestions about how to respond to kids' disability curiosity, including instructions for discovering (subtly) what your child really thinks about people with special needs, explaining both mental and physical differences, and teaching kids manners for interacting with assistive tools (service dogs, wheelchairs, etc.). 

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