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Teaching Your Child About Physical Disabilities

by Brooke Smith

Many children with physical disabilities, especially ones with full-time regular ed class schedules, face harsh judgment or harassment. Therefore, acceptance of their physical disabilities from peers can be so impactful.

Leave Judgement at the Door

What makes a disabled child feel limited might not always be their limitations. It could be how their peers view them.

“Who’s that?” Alex asked as she pointed to the redheaded girl in the pink motorized wheelchair. 

“Oh, that’s Brittany. She is in my class,” her friend Taylor responded. “We should invite her to come play.”

Taylor smiled when Brittany looked towards their way. Brittany waved back.

“Hey Brit—” Alex stopped her before she could finish.

“But how do you know if she can? She won’t able to swing with us or anything.”

“I guess…” Taylor answered as she glanced at the playground, then back at Brittany.

Confusion filled Brittany’s bright blue eyes.

“See… It won’t be any fun,” Alex slapped her forehead. “Come on, let’s go swing.”

“Fine…” Taylor exhaled and followed her friend.

I have a neurological disorder called Cerebral Palsy. It has primarily affected my body movement and muscle coordination. I am wheelchair-bound and I communicate with speaking programs. Although I grew up with physical disabilities, my childhood was as ordinary as it could be.

I was a full-time regular ed student who loved taking part in extracurricular activities and social events. Even though seeking acceptance from my peers was one of the most difficult challenges I have ever faced, I am glad that I received the opportunity to enhance many young minds.

No disabled person is the same. Each has a wide range of abilities and independence. Each also has their own preferences on how they want others to help and treat them. So here are a few general things I have learned through personal experience about others with physical disabilities.

Following these tips will not only help your child develop a better understanding of the world, but will also help her become a great role model.

Encourage Curiosity

Embrace your child’s curiosity. Let her stare and ask questions. Fear, shame, or embarrassment is not what you want her to feel in the presence of a disabled person. If you respond positively and calmly, she will do the same.  

For instance, if she wonders why a person is in a wheelchair, simply explain the person needs the chair to get around because their legs don’t function properly. Then try to compare it to something she can understand, like how some people need glasses to help them see.

Provide Examples 

Reading books with a positive portrayal of disability can make a vast difference as well. Children need to see disabled people living life and having fun. Here are some influential books to check out:

  • I Am Not a Label: 34 disabled artists, thinkers, athletes and activists from past and present by Cerrie Burnell
  • It’s OK to be Different: A Children’s Picture Book About Diversity and Kindness by Sharon Purtill
  • My Friend Suhana by Shaila Abdullah
  • Wonder by J. Palacio
  • We’re All Wonders by R.J. Palacio
  • Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

Humanizing others helps children learn that there is nothing wrong with being different. If your child wants to go introduce herself and ask the person or their companion questions, let her. Many disabled individuals appreciate innocent curiosity and do not mind answering questions. We want what everybody else wants and that’s being acknowledged as normal human beings.

Inclusion Over Exclusion

Even if your child knows how to treat disabled individuals, she might still struggle with feeling confused about how to best include others. She may also worry about feeling judged by their friends for caring about including others. If your child asks you what she should do, ask how she would feel if somebody excluded them.

Encourage her to share her concerns with the disabled student or a teacher. It is better to ask than to assume. For instance, the story above should have ended like this:

“I guess…” Taylor answered as she glanced at the playground, then back at Brittany.

Confusion filled Brittany’s bright blue eyes.

“See… It won’t be any fun,” Alex slapped her forehead. “Come on, let’s go swing.”

“Wait. I am going to go ask her.” Taylor turned around and walked over to Brittany.

Alex rolled her eyes. Brittany perked up when she saw Taylor coming.

“Hey Taylor!”

“Hey Brittany. I was wondering if you’d like to come play with us on the playground,” Taylor said. “I wasn’t sure if it is something you like doing since…”

“Yes! I want to. I love playing on playgrounds,” Brittany replied, ‘Come on, I have a favorite game I enjoy playing.”


Inclusion is always the best conclusion

It is also important to help her understand how choosing the inclusion of others can prevent isolation and bullying. Isolation can cause depression and anxiety. If your child sees an act of bullying against a disabled student, she should tell a teacher, but she should also go see if the student is ok.

The help of another peer might be more impactful than the help of a teacher. Many disabled students might feel too vulnerable with the constant help from teachers or aides. They do not want to be viewed as weak all the time. Students are more likely to listen to their peers than listen to an adult giving the same advice, anyway.

At Nongirly, we belive that curiosity leads to greater opportunities, so let your child feed her curiosity and teach them to trust her own gut. There are so many kinds of physical disabilities and ways to handle them. She just needs to know a person’s disability does not define who they are. Each one of us all has feelings, goals and aspirations!


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