It's so true—including children and teens with intellectual disability isn't something that comes easily to many. If, like me, you're the parent of a child with intellectual or physical disability, then you've seen that firsthand And if, like me, you grew up without having many interactions with disabled people, then you also get why kids may be wary or hesitant.
It's true: Parents need to encourage their children to include those with disabilities whether it's saying hi to them, talking to them, roping them into a game during recess or at the playground, sitting with them in the lunch room, inviting them to birthday parties or just hanging out. But ideally, before any of this happens, children understand what disability means. Because while it's true that inclusion has to be learned, in order for it to be a regular, natural part of life, children have to first be comfortable with disability.
Maybe there's a child with disabilities at your child's school, at church or in your social circle who you can refer to in discussions with your child. Perhaps an interaction with a child who has disabilities at a playground spurs a talk about disability. Or maybe there's something in the media, like an ad that features a child with disabilities, that kicks off a discussion—an ongoing on.
Inclusion starts with talking about what's similar between your child and ones with disabilities, since different can be intimidating and scary. Talk with your child about the fact that children with disabilities can enjoy many of the same things they do—ice-cream, toys, trucks, dolls, watching Paw Patrol, playing in the bath, going on trips with their families, whatever. Note that children with disabilities have families who love them, just like you love your child.
Inclusion also starts with children understanding the whys behind different. A child with autism may flap his arms because it is his way of calming himself down when he gets anxious. A child with autism may not want to look people in the eye because it is too overwhelming to him. A child with cerebral palsy may not speak, walk or use his hands like other people because his brain can't send certain messages to his muscles. (Notice that I didn't use the wording "use his hands like normal people" or "his brain can't send the right messages" because I think it's good to keep language neutral to avoid making it seem like children with disabilities are defective or abnormal.) A child with Down syndrome or intellectual disability may take time to learn things because that's the way his brain works.
Inclusion begins when a child understands how children and adults with disabilities can be active, engaged, enabled and capable. A child might use a wheelchair or walker to get around or have foot braces to support his feet. A person might use a communication device to help him say words, along with nods and gestures. When you're out in public, seize the teaching moments. People in wheelchairs can press buttons to automatically open doors in buildings; show your child those buttons. There are wheelchairs with giant wheels that let people with disabilities glide over sand and into water; show your child those wheelchairs. There are lifts that can help people with disabilities get in and out of pools, and they exist to make sure that people with disabilities enjoy themselves, like anyone can. Show your child those lifts. There are parking spots reserved for people with disabilities close to stores and buildings; show your child those spots.
And inclusion begins with understanding that this world is a better place because there are so, so many kinds of people. Talk about the glorious variety that is humanity—the ways people look, talk, behave, exist. There are many books out there about children with disabilities, including We Can Do It! by Laura Dwight, Don't Call Me Special: A First Look at Disability by Pat Thomas, Leah's Voice by Lori DeMonia (about autism) and Yes I Can! A Girl and Her Wheelchair by Kendra J. Barrett. But I also like ones that organically include children with disabilities, like The Barefoot Book of Children: It's an exploration of children all around the world, and the illustrations include children with disabilities. Whoever You Are by Mem Fox and A Rainbow of Friends by P.K. Hallinan are also good.
I'll leave you with two award-winning short animated films that could inspire a good discussion with children. The first, called Ian, is based on a fourth-grader named Ian with cerebral palsy who lives in Argentina. The film came about thanks to his mother, Sheila Graschinsky.
The other film, Cuerdas (which means "strings" in Spanish), was written and directed by Pedro Solis Garcia. His son, Nicholas, has cerebral palsy and he found inspiration in the way his daughter, Alejandra, treated her younger brother.