It’s a bit of a funny topic when you think about it, and one children are quite happy to broach in that innocent yet blunt way they have. You can be walking down the street when they’ll see someone and that piping voice will ring out at full volume with any question that pops into their heads.
Why does that lady use a stick?
Why does that man use a wheelchair?
Why does that grown up need someone else to look after them like you look after me?
In other words, the sort of questions that tend to go through our minds with varying degrees of complexity.
The trick is how to bring our children up with a positive view of disability, to satisfy their curiosity without making someone who has different abilities be anything less than they are – real people with real talents, likes and dislikes who just happen to have an extra dimension to their lives.
It’s something we’ve been able to experience from both sides. The Other Half is an amputee and one of his pet hates is when parents get embarrassed and try to shut their children up when all the kids want to know is what happened to his arm. He’s quite happy to explain it. He’ll crouch down and ask them what they think happened, then he’ll tell them about a bus accident and how the doctors couldn’t save his arm and had to cut it off.
He’s not ashamed of it.
He’s not embarrassed by it.
And there’s no reason that anyone else should be embarrassed by it.
He does have his own unique way of dealing with parents, or children, who have a negative approach. I remember one occasion when, whilst we were on holiday in Hawaii, two children pointed at him and said “Yuk mister, what happened to your arm?” He looked at them, looked at the water, pointed and said “There’s sharks out there!” We’re not sure if they went swimming after that or not. Five minutes later, two more children asked the same question in a totally different, non-judgemental, way and he explained it in his usual fashion. The parents thanked him for being so open and patient with their children afterwards.
Of course, not everyone with a disability will feel the same way when approached by small, curious children. They might not want any intrusive questions, but, by and large, our experience is that, when children ask the question, it’s for the same reason they ask why the sky is blue, why leaves fall off the trees in the autumn, or why hedgehogs hibernate in the winter; they genuinely want to know.
And people are usually OK with explaining it.
The problem is, with so many views about disability and the fact that society itself isn’t quite at the point where disability is accepted as something natural that can happen to people the same way people can have darker skin or blue eyes, it can be difficult for us as parents to show our children a way through the minefield of learning about people’s differences whilst still respecting them as individuals.
We’re trying to help them understand that someone who has a disability may need to do things in a different way, or might need a little help with certain tasks, but that isn’t too much different from them needing help with zipping their coats up or me needing help with sorting out the flipping heating system. It’s not that we’re trivialising the support some people need, just trying to put it into a context a five-year-old can understand.
In the meantime, we’ll answer his questions or let others answer his questions.
And we’ll try to emulate his open-mindedness when it comes to the world, and the people, around him.