How to Answer Awkward Questions from Kids About Disability
Kids ask incredibly embarrassing questions in public. It's just what they do.
For most of us 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.
So what's the right thing to do?
Simple Answers to Kids' Disability Questions
The best way to respond to kids' curiosity about disability is to 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.
If you dodge their question, you'll give the impression that either it's not important, or there's something inherently evil about disability and it shouldn't be talked about. 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.
Suppose your child asks why someone is in a wheelchair. You could respond with something like:
"Their body is different from ours and they need to use a wheelchair to get around. There's nothing wrong with being different.”
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 promote equality.
Prepare yourself. Your curious grade-schooler will no doubt have a lot of awkward questions when they meet a disabled person. Here are some simple responses to common questions from kids about disability.
Are disabilities contagious?
"No disabilities are not contagious. They're not like the flu or a cold that you can catch from someone else."
Why does s/he act like that?
"S/he does that because part of his/her brain isn't the same as 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."
Is s/he retarded or something?
"First, ‘retarded’ isn't a nice word. Please say mentally disabled instead. To answer your question, his/her brain functions differently, so s/he has a harder time talking and learning than most people. But other than that, s/he's 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. S/he didn’t do anything to deserve the disability. It’s just a part of life."
Is s/he going to live to be a grown up?
“No one knows the answer to that. But doctors and scientists are working hard to help them live the best life possible.”
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 s/he ever be able to walk?
“I don’t know for sure, but I suspect s/he’s working hard along with his/her doctors and parents to do the best s/he can.”
Is he/she a daddy/mommy?
“I don't know for sure. S/he could possibly be a mommy/daddy. S/he might have a little girl or boy at home that’s just like you!”
Why can't s/he walk like we do?
“You're right. S/he walks differently than we do. There lots of different medical reasons that control how someone walks.”
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."
Follow Up On Your Disability Answers
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.