We consistently sit in the same pew at church every week. Lately, my toddler has noticed someone else who sits near us every week. He is a young man, in high school, severely disabled and hooked up to several machines that go off and on during Mass.
When his machine goes on my daughter’s focus immediately shifts, and she stares. She notices him. She notices that he is different but I’m sure not quite to what extent. So, we tell her,
“don’t stare, say hi”
And she does. She waves. After a few weeks of this, we took our toddler over to meet this young man. We’re familiar enough with his family, given that we see them every week. We brought her over and asked them if our daughter could meet their son. Although she is shy around strangers, our daughter waved and said hello several times to her new friend.
I do not have special needs children, and I can’t speak for special needs families but I would like to think between being stared at from afar, or having actual communication together the latter may be what is preferred. It’s not a secret we need to keep hush when we see someone with a disability, but we need to remember that these are people in our community and we need to act like it.
This is what my husband and I have deemed appropriate for my daughter’s developmental level. We both have backgrounds in special education and I know this is just the start. My husband volunteers with Special Olympics and has already expressed interest in our children attending with him in the future.
Although we can only claim experience so far for one child’s early foundation, we have had foster children to have this talk with as well. Often it starts with this same young man, other people with physical disabilities or with a service dog.
How to start
When we get “why” questions we usually start by saying the basics. They were probably born like that. It’s just how they were made. The wheelchair/braces/cane are to help them get around. They sign because they cannot hear. That’s how they communicate. They move that way because their body works differently than yours. That dog is working, they are here to help their person. While they work we cannot pet them because they have a job.
I have found people who have service dogs are the easiest door to talk to younger children about disability. Children typically recognize that pets do not go inside a building. Service dogs also wear a vest, so even for children who cannot read, they can learn to recognize situations where they should be given less and more attention. Less attention to the dog, more attention to potential needs of the individual.
Your children learn how to be human from watching the world around them, but mostly, they watch you.
Remind them how to show kindness to others. Model that people with disabilities are not people who need to be babied. Show your children how to talk to them, ask them if they need help with something specific, smile, make eye contact.
Just as you teach your children about holding doors open for the person behind them and the family with the stroller, teach them to offer assistance for the person that cannot freely do their desired task.
Mostly, teach your children that people with disabilities are people, and should be treated as such.