Teaching children to value people with disabilities and differences, not pity them.

Teaching children to value people with disabilities and differences, not pity them. Photo: Getty Images

A few months ago the kids and I were parked near the local supermarket. It was a warm day and the car windows were down. A woman in a wheelchair came out of the shop. My son spotted her and exclaimed very loudly: “Why can’t that woman walk?” Horrified, I berated him with such venom he burst into tears.

Later he asked me why I was so angry. I explained that he could hurt the woman’s feelings and make her very sad. “Why?” he asked, “is not walking a bad thing?” And then the penny dropped. All my son did was find someone outside his visual experience interesting. What I did was make the women’s disability something to be pitied or ashamed of. It was deeply ableist.

Like sexism and racism, ableism is a form of prejudice. It assumes the abled bodied are the norm and people who experience disability are the ‘other’. Ableists view disability as inherently negative, something to be conquered in the quest for a ‘normal’ body. Ableists fail to see people who experience disability as merely different with a valid contribution to make towards society; they view them with pity, fear and even disgust.

<i>My Friend Isabelle</i> by Eliza Woolson Click for more photos

Books to teach inclusion to kids

My Friend Isabelle by Eliza Woolson

Dr. Kathy Cologon is a lecturer in inclusive education at the Institute of Early Childhood. She acknowledges that Australian society has made significant progress over the last few decades. Where once there was routine segregation there is now greater acceptance and integration. However, as Dr. Cologon explains, this isn’t really enough. “Integration isn’t inclusion, it’s a permission to be present but it’s not full membership or belonging.”   

We may want our kids to grow up in an inclusive society. We may want them to view people who experience disability as potential friends, work colleagues and lovers. But how do we broach the issue without singling people out as ‘other’? How do we encourage inclusivity but also foster thoughtfulness that ensures our kids are helpful but not patronising?

Almost 20% of Australians are reported to experience disability. Prejudices against them can be deeply entrenched but there are plenty of things parents can do to ensure the next generation is an inclusive one:

1. Review our attitudes

Most of us probably consider ourselves as kind and charitable towards people who experience disability, and that’s a problem. Although it may feel like it comes from a good place it’s an attitude that treats people as lesser.   

“We have abelist beliefs not because we intend to or want to but because we were childen brought up with these views, however we need to work to disestablish these perceptions,” says Dr. Cologon. Thinking about and coming to terms with the notion of ableism and how it affects our actions and attitudes is the first step in effecting change.

2. Be open to discussion

Young children in particular can be immune to social mores and often ask open and upfront questions about people’s differences. Dr. Cologon encourages parents to embrace their inquisitiveness. “Be open to the acute awareness that children have and try to not shut things down or make them taboo.”

Appearance activist and writer Carly Findlay suggests parents allow children to speak up. “Encourage children to ask polite questions and let the person who looks different speak for themself, rather than making assumptions or answering for them.” While this helps children engage with people who experience disability, Findlay adds that it’s important to respect a person’s personal space and privacy. “Be mindful the person with a visible difference or disability may not want to answer questions.” 

3. Talk about difference not disability

We all need support from our peers to help us manage our strengths and weaknesses i.e. our differences. Those differences needn’t be labeled and we don’t need to patronise those who need help, because at some point or other that’s each and every one of us.

Teaching children how to understand and accept difference rather than disability is setting them on the path to inclusivity. Findlay recommends: “Talking to children about the fact everyone looks different and that's what makes the world a great place. Talk about all types of diversity: disability, cultural, religious, age range, and sexuality.” 

4. Use the right words

Person first language, e.g. ‘person experiencing disability’ rather than ‘disabled person’, avoids defining people by their differences. I don’t describe my son as an “uncontrollable temper child”. He’s a five-year-old who struggles to keep a lid on his emotions; it’s part of who he is but it doesn’t define him. The same applies to anyone who experiences disability. Putting the person first ensures they are seen as an individual first and foremost.

In addition, it’s important to use respectful terms and avoid value-laden phrases associated with disability. Words such as ‘suffering’ or ‘struggling’ or ‘burdened’ are often used to describe people who are getting on with their lives just fine.

It may feel like political correctness but as Dr. Cologon points out it’s necessary that we get it right. “We go about the process of constructing people through language. The words we choose to describe people are therefore really important.”

5. Find positive representations

It can be hard to find children’s books that carry representations of disability. If disability is present it’s often depicted as a tragedy or something to be pitied or feared. Characters tend to embody lazy stereotypes such as the paragon of virtue or the evil baddy; there’s very little nuance or realism. 

“Children’s literature can be a powerful medium through which we can explore a non-tragedy understanding of disability and move forward with embracing diversity and living life together,” says Dr. Cologon. Finding engaging stories with well-rounded characters that experience disability is therefore a great way of normalising difference for children. 

Ethan Hall is a child who has blossomed in an inclusive environment. Having been diagnosed with special learning needs, Ethan’s parents resisted segregated learning and enrolled him in a mainstream public primary school.  Ethan has a teacher’s aide to help him with certain skills and while some of his classmates are curious about why Ethan has two teachers, as far as they’re concerned he is just the same as them. Ethan’s mum, Lucia, is thrilled with how he has settled into school. “I see that his friends accept him and treat him no differently than they would any other classmate and that's what's important to me.” 

A reading list of great children’s books that explore difference:

  • My Friend Isabelle by Eliza Woolson
  • Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis
  • Being Ben by Margaret Chamberlain and Jacqueline Roy
  • Max the Champion by Alex Strick and Sean Stockdale
  • Molly Lou by Patty Lovell
  • Freddie and the Fairy by Julia Donaldson
  • Arabella by Wendy Orr and Kim Gamble
  • The Black Book of Colours by Menena Cottin and Rosana Faria
  • My Silent World by Nette Hilton and Vincent Agostino
  • Mama Zooms by Jane Cowan-Fletcher
  • Two Mates by Melanie and Maggie Prewett
  • Private and Confidential by Marion Ripley and Colin Backhouse
  • Keep Your Ear on the Ball by Genevieve Petrillo and Lea Lyon
  • This House is for Everyone by Rosen and Graham

Titles can be ordered here: http://www.letterboxlibrary.com/index.html

Has your child asked you about a person with a disability? How did you respond to their curiosity? Leave a comment below or join the discussion in the EK Forums.