Having “The [Disability] Talk” With Kids

My friend Thom and I had just finished our weekly swim, and entered the spacious unisex change-rooms at the Y. When I say unisex, I really mean unieverything. One change-room that not only houses each gender, but also each age and family size, from parents with  kids to groups of teens that insist on changing in the open, despite obviously vacant private cubicles.

On this particular afternoon, we shared the room with a woman and child . Thom and I were chatting, when a little girl’s voice cut into our conversation.

“Why are they both riding those?” She asked, pointing hesitantly at our wheelchairs, and looking blatantly at her current caregiver for answers.

I smiled slightly at her cute curiosity and Thom and I continued our talk. I asked Thom to repeat himself, as he has a speech impediment that causes me to miss what he says sometimes. That, and sometimes it’s entertaining to watch him never loose his cool, in situations where most people would turn punch red and yell, “Bitch are you deaf?”

Thom started his sentence over, when the little kid interrupted again—

“Why does he speak like that?” she asked, looking at us and vaguely aiming the question in her gaurdian’s direction

The woman looked at us and smiled gently, as if to say, Excuse her, she’s little and knows not what she does.

“Why does he talk like that?!”the girl asked again, this time to the open air, because her guardian was barely acknowledging her question.

This is beauty of the developing child’s mind: they pass no judgement, only raw want-to-know.  The kid wasn’t saying, “What’s wrong with his words?” or, “What’s wrong with that girl’s feet?” She was only asking why. No preconceived notions. No  leading and loaded stereotypically-based questions. Just triple-distilled What’s up with that?”

Feeling a tinge of  sympathy for this curious child, I asked Thom if I could answer her question.

“Tell her I’m drunk.” He dared.

I promptly ignored Thom’s advice, approached the girl and smiled, “Hi.” I said. She smiled shyly and began to repeat her million-dollar question.

“–Because some people have trouble getting their tongues to move how they want them to, which can make it tough for their words to sound like our words,”I offered. I cringe now, looking back on it, at my use of us and them in my attempt to be simplistic for this kid. Hopefully she didn’t judge me for it.

“Oh. But why?” She asked again. The woman she had first aimed all her unanswered questions at seemed to come alive with a response:

“You know how you say marshmallow  like it’s marshtallow?It’s kinda like that.”The woman gave me a big, toothy, See?I’m-not-ignorant-after-all smile.


And you thought their only function was to turn kids into The Devil’s spawn.

“Oh.”The girl’s big blue-green eyes blinked-in this new information, and she smiled at me, “Ok.” She then launched into a long story about snow, speaking mostly to the woman she was with, but checking every so often to see if I was listening.

Just like that this kid forgot  about difference. For now, our half-assed explanations were enough, and she could go back to discussing wintery white stuff in the excited way that only kids can, after four months straight of it.

This brief experience made me think about the way we discuss disabilities with children, and how much of an impact the implications of what we say must have on the way they come to understand physical differences. How do we explain it to kids when we barely know how to talk about it with each other? How do I say to a pigtailed 5, 6, or 7 year-old that, “I can’t walk because my legs don’t listen to me the way yours do,” without making disability sound innately negative? How do I, and everyone, work towards neutralizing notions of disability when it is So.Very.Ingrained as this sad, limiting, thing?

Hoohum, the questions without answers continue to multiply. Suggestions?



  1. Without getting into the whole maelstrom of political correctness and such terminologies as ‘differently abled’, I kind of think that ‘disability’ is ootzed into the negative from the offset. It has its roots in ‘dis-‘, or ‘to not to’. In the same way I’ve kicked back in the past against the word ‘miscarriage’, carrying inherently within it other ‘mis-‘s such as ‘mishap’ and ‘mistake’ and possibly even ‘misplaced; as though there were ever any choice or option to make it otherwise.

    I tend to go with the ‘it’s a broken world and shit happens’. Perhaps not so bluntly to a little kid, but there is an optimum way for our bodies to work. And although detractions from this optimum (be they ‘dis-‘ or ‘mis-‘ or simply short-sightedness) should NOT be viewed as devaluing of the PERSON, physically, they are still detractions from that optimum.

    Feel free to shout me down anytime I end up writing something too dickwaddish, won’t you.

    • I agree (somewhat reluctantly) that there’s an optimum way for our bodies to work, and that our language is steeped in words and word-parts that reflect “less than optimum.” While I feel this way, I also recognize that this viewpoint is knee-high in elements of Darwinism that, because Darwinism is so greatly accepted at the standard for understanding evolutionary success, automatically dismisses physical difference. I believe looking at bodies in terms of “can” and “can’t”, “optimum” and “not optimum” is something we’ve been taught to accept, when it might be closer to the truth to realize that those “not optimum” are part of the changing process that is evolution–and as is such should be seen more neutrally. I say this, but in my personal life, the jury is still out on this–I just know that I do not accept narrow standards of able and unable.
      I think it’s also important to mention that even if I do wonder if disability really is just less than optimum, I don’t think we should convey that to kids. Portraying brokeness in any sense, immediately evokes sympathy, which is exactly the kind of thing I’m not interested in. I want to portray a life that just is–because that’s how I’ve experienced it. For me, there is no “was optimum but lost it.”There is no lived reality of loss–this has always been and always will be my situation. And just as I do not pity what I haven’t felt loss over, I would hope that children (and people in general) would take the same just-the-way-it-is mentality.

      • I wonder if it takes it further into Darwinism, because when you think of the furore not so long ago. when Oscar Pistorius was allowed to compete in the Olympics and conversation exploded as to whether this was fair on the ‘able bodied’ athletes, because it was argued that his prosthetics gave him more advantage on track than did their legs.

        Even so far as Google Glasses, we’re increasingly moving towards technologically augmented bodies, and perhaps those who have physical disabilities stand to benefit most, or certainly make the most of those advances, but we’re headed there collectively, in all kinds of walks of life.

        But I like your thought about not having lost something. And this is where my ignorance again rears its ugly head. That’s an entirely new thought to me, and with typical egocentrism I would assume that most people would want to be as capable (physcially, mentally, emotionally, whatever-ly) as possible.

        But with your comment about portrayal to children. I can appreciate that coming across as ‘broken’ or ‘less than’ has negative connotations, and would not be something to encourage. But there’s a fine line between sympathy and compassion, and compassion for others (in general) is something worth fostering (as long as it doesn’t begin to look like the Pity Face).

  2. When a child asks me why I’m in a wheelchair I respond with “Because my legs don’t work like yours” if they follow up with “Why” then I say “When I was born my muscles didn’t grow very good so now I can’t walk” That usually sates their curiosity.

    If they ask in a simple terms, I answer in simple terms. If they change the subject, I go with the flow. If it’s an older child who asks in a more indepth way and continues to ask more questions, I answer a little more detailed.

    I take my cues from them and let them lead the conversation where they want it to go.

    • I do the same as you with children. Although it would be nice to have disabilities be neutral, there is the reality that they are limitations ‘able-bodied’ people don’t have. Living day in and day out with a disability is frustrating, at the least. There isn’t anyway to sugar coat it. And, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be sugar coated. It’s like any other negative in your life. It’s there and you must find a way to deal with it. In the end, it makes you a stronger and, maybe, a more complete person.

  3. Pingback: Did You Read This? 2/16 - 2/22 |

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