Monday, October 1, 2018

One good way to tell how a child was raised: How they treat those with disabilities

Max was hanging out with some girls recently, part of a group Sabrina belongs to. He'd crashed their gathering at our home and was doing some drawing with them.

During a snack break, some of them ignored Max, who was trying to make conversation. But a couple hung out with him and listened to him talk about wanting to move to Orlando. One complimented the picture he'd made. They didn't talk with him in an infantile way, which sometimes happens. They spoke with him like a peer.

Parents know to teach children to be polite and to do right. But many don't think to teach theirs to be open-minded about, and accepting of, people of all abilities. It's not a hard thing to do. Even if there are no kids with disabilities in a child's academic or social circle, there are opportunities to start discussions—when a child has questions about a child or adult with disabilities they see in public, say, or in the media. There are blogs (hello) and social media. There are children and adults with disabilities on TV, from Speechless to the reality show Born This Way. People with disabilities are all around, if others choose to see them.

My own parents were awesome parents, but they did not talk with me about people with disabilities. There was so much less awareness back then. I didn't know what to make of the one child I ever met who had cognitive disabilities. And when I grew up and saw people with disabilities or parents of kids with disabilities, I only felt sorry for them. Then I had a child with disabilities.

I didn't judge the girls who ignored Max or their parents—they're good people—even though it was hard to see them not engage with him. It's possible that the girls who naturally interacted with him had someone with disabilities in their extended family, so hanging with Max was NBD. Still, I could tell that their families had instilled in them to treat all people respectfully and equally. I've seen it happen enough over the years to know. While a lot of kids or teens in a room may gawk or stare at Max—and there are times when parents stare, too—there are always a couple who approach Max as a person, not a disability.

And once again, here I am, just a mom saying: Teach your children well. Tell them not to feel sorry for children and adults with disabilities. Help kids understand there are all sorts of ways that people move, communicate, behave, express themselves. Play up what everyone has in common. Teach them respect with your own actions. Encourage them to just say "Hi."


  1. I have a disabilityand grew up with people who have disabilities in my family but I still wasn't sure how to act when I encountered someone with a disability. Sometimes I'm still not. When I was in kindergarten I shared an aide with a boy who had cognitive disabilities. My mom and his grandma were friends so we played a lot. At that age I just wondered why he still played with "baby" toys but other than that I was happy to play with him or near him as sometimes he didn't want to play with other kids. In class I struggled and was glad to see that he was too because that meant I wasn't alone in not being able to figure out all the things the other kids were learning. It got harder as we got older. My friend went to live with his dad after his grandma died and was put in a self contained class. Other kids started noticing my differences more and I could not keep up at all on the playground. There were very few kids with disabilities in my school and most of those had visual impairments. During PE I would be paired with one kid who was a completely jerk and also blind. The teachers let him get away with anything, including hitting me with his cane. Another boy who wore braces hid it from everyone and would only wear them at night so I was the only one who knew he had braces. The kids at my physical therapy unit were more physically disabled than I was and I felt I didn't fit in. While I had two family members with down syndrome their families treated them in very different ways which did not help me figure out how to approach other people with those types of disabilities. In high school I was in adaptive PE with other kids who had physical disabilities but they complained that I wasn't disabled enough because I mostly walked and did not hang out or even really talk with me. Every time I encountered someone else with a disability it didn't seem to go well-I said the wrong thing, they invaded my personal space, I said the wrong thing or they got really upset at something I did or we just had completely incompatabile views of disability.

    It wasn't until college when I worked in disability services with my boss who was blind that I really got to know someone else with a disability. We didn't always understand each other's disability but neither did we get upset at those misunderstandings. She had a good laugh at me once when I kept telling her to grab some papers out of the gray cabinet only to realize she had no idea what I was saying. I was horribly embarassed at slipping up but I realized then that I could treat her just like everyone else and relax because if I made a mistake she wouldn't be upset. I am part of a support group now for people who have something similar to one of my conditions (mine is too rare for a group!) and this seems pretty common. Just because we have a disability or have been around people with disabilities does not mean we know how to act around all people with disabilities or all people for that matter. Exposure isn't enough. I think the most basic part of it is we are not taught what to do when we aren't sure what to do. When most people are at a loss for how to act they ignore the situation or try to get away from it. That is completely normal but not helpful in the long run. Instead I would love to see people teach their kids how to communicate. If you aren't sure about something, ask. If you aren't sure another child can play your game, ask them. If you aren't sure someone wants a hug, ask. If you aren't sure what someone is saying, ask them to try again or a different way. We don't do that and it's a hard skill to learn sometimes but at the end of the day I think most people would rather have you ask a question than be ignored. Conversely we have to be okay with people asking and not offended or upset that they don't instinctively know how to act. If we teach those communication skills early and view them as an asset rather than showing weakness by admitting you aren't sure how to act.

    1. Jessica, thank you so much for stopping by and sharing both your experience and your wisdom—they're both really helpful, for me and others, I'm sure. And yes to asking!

  2. Does Sabrina notice how her friends treat Max? Not saying this to judge, just curious.

    1. These are more acquaintances than friends. I don't think she noticed. Her friends treat Max like an annoying brother, which is to say, they treat him like any other brother.


Thanks for sharing!

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