Disabilities through a child's eyes
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By Valle Dwight
Aidan’s differences are a little subtle to young children. He has all his limbs, he walks and talks (though not clearly), and he plays just like them. When we go to the playground, I can sense as other kids become aware of Aidan. They stop what they’re doing and watch him for a minute or two. They’re scoping him out, trying to figure out “What’s different here?”
Some of them walk up to him and ask him to play; they’re attracted to him, or they want to get a closer look. In any case, they are not afraid. Many bypass him and come straight to me: “How old is he?” is a typical first question. Usually I gently remind them that Aidan is standing right next to me and that they should ask him. The kids are often surprised (but pleased) when they ask and Aidan tells them how old he is.
Later on, if the child still is curious about Aidan, I give a brief explanation: “He has Down syndrome, which means it will take him longer to walk and talk, and sometimes it’s harder for him. But he will do these things. People are born with Down syndrome — you can’t catch it.” Usually that’s all they need to hear, and they’re perfectly satisfied.
At school, where he has been in a regular classroom since kindergarten, Aidan’s classmates have come to know him as just a boy, no longer “the boy with Down syndrome.” They look beyond his differences to see what we see: a kid who loves reading Harry Potter, telling jokes, shooting hoops, playing the guitar, and bugging his big brother.
Helping your child understand difference
Chances are your kid has a classmate with a disability, so now is a good time to talk about differences in people:
- Explain differences in general — point out how people have different hair color, height, accents, etc.
- Talk about your kid's classmates and their differences and similarities.
- Be matter-of-fact when discussing people with disabilities. If you’re uncomfortable, your child will sense it. If there is a classmate with a specific disability, do research on it together.
- Focus on what that child can do rather than the disability.
- Let your child know that it’s OK to ask questions about differences and that you are always available to talk.
- Think about the words you use when referring to people with differences — avoid ones with negative connotations, such as “crippled” or “retarded,” and try to use people-first language ("child with Down syndrome" instead of "Down syndrome child," for example). If you’re not sure of the best words to use, don’t be afraid to ask!