How Do I Teach My Child to be Inclusive?
This post is going to a bit more informative and hopefully, practical. I also want to clarify that this information is coming purely from my own, personal experience. I cannot speak for every disabled person or every parent of a disabled child. This is just me, coming from my own experiences & I hope this is valuable enough and holds enough weight for people to learn from.
So, this is the big question:
I talk and post a lot about disability inclusion, but how do we actually do it?
What do we, as parents/teachers/parental figure, need to do in order to help teach our kids to be more inclusive and accepting of people with disabilities?
Step 1: EDUCATE YOURSELF.
This is big, bold, & loud. Because without this, anything else I have to say beyond this point is totally moot. If you do not educate yourself, how will you answer questions your kids have? How will you be able to have any sort of meaningful discussions if you do not know what you are talking about. Personally, I am a big fan of admitting to your kids when you don't know something and then model researching and looking up answers - it's a great tool to teach kids that we are human, too and don't know everything. However, when the question of disabilities comes up, I feel like we don't want to waste any time - it may not be something that you can "come back later" to at a meaningful point, and we don't want to lose out on potential teachable moments.
(That is not to say of course, that we need to know everything and don't make something up because you don't want to "lose the moment" - always better to be delayed and accurate than "immediate" and inaccurate.)
What are some ways we can educate ourselves?
I would say "google it," but let's be realistic - not many people are going to just sit there on the computer and type things into google like, what is disability inclusion? what is CP? how do blind people get around. If you want to, sure, go ahead! You will get some very useful information, for sure.
But the best way to learn about disabilities (in my opinion)? Follow disabled content creators on social media. Many people I know are great at scrolling through Instagram & Facebook (myself included). These are people living it, telling it like it is, & educating others. What better way to learn than from disabled people themselves. These are people who do NOT have to do what they are doing by putting themselves out there and being vulnerable to the world about their experiences. But they are. I'll share with you some of my favorite content creators on Instagram in my next blog post (as well as disability-focused organizations, professionals, & parents of disabled children). Instagram does this lovely thing where it recommends accounts for you to follow based on who you just added - keep scrolling through that and find different people and organizations to follow. The soundbites of information they post are informative, easily digestible, & impactful. I have learned so much through social media and am so grateful to be able to learn from people who are willing to teach.
On that note, I bring us to...
Just because a person is disabled, they do not owe you any explanation.
There is a pretty common trope we know as, "Just Ask." Many people who know us know that we are an open book and are always happy to talk about E's disability - and he is happy to talk about it as well. However, we need to understand that not everyone is ok with this. Just because someone is using a wheelchair, walker, prosthetic limb, etc. - they do not need to open their medical file to answer your questions.
They do not owe you a single explanation.
When questions come from kids, these questions come across as innocent and inquisitive (except for the times when they are clearly obnoxious). But when it comes from adults, it comes off as intrusive & uneducated.
So please, educate yourself (and then you can answer your child's questions and said disabled person can go on and live their life without being interrogated).
I have many, many stories of questions we were asked, reactions, what have you. My favorite was when we were at the park and E was using his gait trainer, I overheard a kid ask her mom what it was. She responded, "that's a walker- he has a bit of trouble using his legs, so the walker helps give him support."
I wanted to cry. It was such a refreshing change of pace to hear a parent be able to answer that question & not have to defer to me. I don't mind it, but it's reassuring to know that other adults have answers to these questions as well.
Then guess what that kid did: moved on. The child moved on more educated than before, no longer staring at E and his large, harness-y walker.
Because sometimes, a kid in a walker just wants to be a kid in a walker & play. Sometimes a parent just wants to sit, & chill, & be a parent.
That is what an educated parent does - informs & educates their child.
This helps get through the initial barrier of "the stare" - when a child sees someone with a disability, they often stare. It's natural - when kids see something they aren't familiar with, they stare. However, when they know what it is they are looking it, they don't harp on it. They might hold their gaze a little longer, trying to recall what that wheelchair is, but once they recall it, they move on (or maybe might even say something like, "Oh I know what that is! That's a wheelchair!"). But they won't stare at said disabled person down with the look of complete shock and confusion. By breaking down this initial barrier of unfamiliarity, kids will be more open and inclusive towards others with disabilities (or so we hope).
Step 2: Bring disabilities into your home.
Chances are, if you are reading this, you don't live with someone disabled. If you don't, and you want to teach your kids about disabilities and make it something they are more aware of, bring it in to your home via books, toys, tv shows, & movies.
Here is where google is your friend; search for toys that have disability representation, find books to read with your kids, tv episodes & movies for them to watch.
Again, in my next post, I will provide recommendations.
In regards to books, tv, & movies, I recommend you reading and watching with your kids first in order to answer questions or bring up discussions. These tools can be highly ineffective if the kids using them are going in without proper support and might not get as much out of it. Also that way if they ask about it, you will know where these questions are coming from and can be more prepared to answer if questions come along later. Hopefully, once the discussion has been had, kids will watch and read on their own, building more knowledge, asking more questions, and just become accustomed to seeing disabilities (making it less of a foreign concept to them).
Step 3: Just say, "Hi!"
No, you do not have to say hi to every single disabled person you see on the street. I mean, you can of course, but the goal of this guide is to create meaningful & authentic connections, and if you feel like the person walking/rolling past you on the street isn't someone you will be interacting with on a daily basis, you probably don't need to go out of your way.
That being said, if you see someone disabled at your synagogue/church/school/neighborhood park, just say, "Hi." You do not need need to take it further, you do not need to force and push your kid to befriend anyone, but just make a space to open the conversation. A quick wave, a head nod, a smile - really, any gesture of friendship is a great place to start.
Let me clarify something here - make sure you talk directly to the disabled person/child, not their parent or caregiver. If they have a disability that prevents them from being able to answer, you will find out (and continue your conversation directly towards the disabled child/person and not their caregiver). But do not assume the disabled child/person is incompetent just because they are using an assistive device.
Just open the space for conversation & friendship.
This isn't so much of a "step," but more of an important note:
Be a positive role model of inclusion for your children.
Children instinctively look up to us on what to do or how to react when they encounter a new situation. Like I wrote before - oftentimes, meeting someone with a disability is a "new experience" for a child. They will watch YOU if they are nervous or apprehensive (which is also totally normal).
If you recoil, turn away quickly, or ignore, your child will learn to do the same.
If you greet & treat someone with a disability the same way you would anyone else, your child will learn to do the same.
Simple as that.
It is so important to be mindful of our behavior and the words we use.
Hopefully, now that you have some of these tools and some knowledge under your belts, meeting someone with a disability won't be such a foreign experience.
By being educated and by being open, we can make space for true inclusion.
*I am using this post to crowdsource and share information - if you are reading this and have any other tips, please make sure to add them in the comments so readers can have more to learn from.
Additionally, if you have any accounts or blogs you love to follow, inclusive books, toys, books, tv shows, or movies you or your kids love, please share them in the comments to help create an extensive resource that I hope my next post will be!