How to Talk to Kids About Disabilities

Understanding disabilities can be challenging for children of all ages. They may not understand why a relative uses a wheelchair, why a classmate with autism acts a certain way, or why they have a disability that makes them different from their peers. We’ve collected some resources and information on how to talk to kids with disabilities below to make it easier for parents to have these discussions with their children.

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What to Do Before Talking to Kids About Disabilities

Before talking to kids about disabilities, it’s a good idea to prepare yourself and do some research beforehand.

Here are some steps to take that can make this discussion go smoothly.

1. Research the Disability

First, research the disability. Use reliable resources such as hospital and government websites. You should be ready to answer any questions your child may have about the disability and its impact.

Some credible websites with information on different disabilities include:

  • American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD): AAIDD is the oldest awareness and advocacy organization for intellectual and developmental disabilities.
  • American Foundation for the Blind (AFB): In operation for more than 100 years, this nonprofit focuses on helping people with vision loss find employment, raise awareness, and more.
  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA): Here you can find information on different hearing impairments, how to volunteer, and supportive resources.
  • Autism Society: This organization connects families to resources and works to make meaningful change to support the autism community.
  • Autism Speaks: This nonprofit organization advocates for people with autism spectrum disorder and works to connect them and their families with support and resources.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): This government-funded organization provides information on a number of different diseases (like cerebral palsy) that lead to disabilities, including statistics, treatment, symptoms, and prevention.
  • Cerebral Palsy Foundation (CPF): CPF focuses on helping people with CP access treatment, resources, and support.
  • Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDAA): Now in its 60th year of operation, LDAA connects children, parents, and educators to helpful solutions and a network of resources.
  • Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA): MDA works to empower, educate, and support people with muscular dystrophy and their families. It is led by volunteers and has been helping people with this condition for more than seven decades.
  • National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD): NORD is a nonprofit organization that has been operating nationwide for 40 years. It helps people with rare diseases feel seen and heard and provides them with the support they need.
  • The American Association of People With Disabilities: This organization advocates for the rights of all people with disabilities in America, including physical, intellectual, and developmental disabilities.
  • The ARC: This group supports individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and has hundreds of chapters across the country.
  • United Cerebral Palsy (UCP): International nonprofit UCP provides services and advocates for people with disabilities.

2. Gather Kid-Friendly Resources

Once you have a firm understanding of the disability, gather kid-friendly resources about the condition. Ensure these resources are age-appropriate and accurate. Examples include picture books, websites, and videos.

Many of the websites listed above provide access to kid-friendly information on disabilities. These resources can give children a better understanding of a sibling, friend, or relative with a disability.

3. Consider Your Language Choices

A child uses a wheelchair to get around outsideNext, think about your language choices when talking to kids about disabilities. Remember to use person-first and age-appropriate language. Person-first language stresses the person before the disability (a person with autism instead of an autistic person).

Be honest and direct and keep your explanations positive.

For example, you could say wheelchairs help people move around instead of saying she uses a wheelchair because she can’t walk.

4. Plan a Private Chat

Plan a private chat with your child to discuss disabilities. This will give them an opportunity to react and ask questions. It will also give you time and space to answer your child’s questions.

You should also plan to have as many follow-up discussions as needed. Your child is likely to have different questions as they get older.

5. Prepare Responses to Potential Questions

Lastly, prepare responses to potential questions. For example, if your child has a friend with a hearing aid, you may be able to anticipate questions that they may have.

Similarly, if your child has a birth injury, they may wonder about its cause, if their condition is likely to improve, and the types of treatment they may need in the future.

Talking to a Kid About Their Own Disability

Many experts say that talking to a child about their disability is important.  They say that it will let the child know that there is nothing wrong with them as a person and that you are not ashamed of them.

However, you know your child better than anyone else. Ultimately, the decision is up to you. Cultural differences, the child’s level of understanding, and other factors should be considered before having this conversation.

That said, talking to a child about their own disability diagnosis can be especially challenging. They may be embarrassed and reluctant to talk.

Here are 3 tips for talking to your child about their disability:

  1. Pick a good time to talk to them about their disability. The child’s age, level of understanding, and schedule can affect how they understand their disability. Choose a time when your child isn’t busy with school and activities so they aren’t distracted and have ample time to process.
  2. Be factual in your conversations. Being too emotional can affect how your child feels. For instance, if you express sadness over the impact of their disability on their future educational and career prospects, they may become anxious about their future. Focus on the science behind your child’s disability and avoid long-winded inspirational speeches.
  3. Talk about who is helping your child. Tell your child about the people helping them with their disability, such as therapists, doctors, and teachers. Tell them that many people are there to support them and help them reach their greatest potential.

If you do decide to talk to your child about their disability, the support groups listed above may have information that can help with that difficult conversation.

Talking to a Kid About Disabilities in Others

It’s important that children understand disabilities, even if they don’t have any special health care needs themselves.

By learning about disabilities, children are more likely to empathize with those who are different from them. They can show compassion and understanding toward a classmate with autism or a relative in a wheelchair, and they may be better equipped to offer support to someone with differing abilities when needed.

Here are 3 tips for talking to your child about a disability in others:

  1. Highlight commonalities. Highlight commonalities between your child and the person they are curious about. For example, if the person uses a wheelchair, tell your child that they use the wheelchair to move around, just like your child uses their legs to walk around.
  2. Introduce your child to people with disabilities. To counter the stigma against disabilities, introduce your child to people with mental and physical disabilities. For example, you can take your child to a café that is staffed by people with intellectual disabilities.
  3. Use books. Give your child books about people with disabilities. These children’s books should highlight the autonomy of people with disabilities and show children that we all need extra help sometimes. Nonfiction books can introduce children to role models with disabilities, like Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking, and Franklin Roosevelt.

Talking to Kids About Invisible Disabilities

People have different types of disabilities. Physical disabilities tend to be more obvious while other disabilities — often called “invisible disabilities” — are not.

Did you know?

An invisible disability is a physical, mental, or neurological condition that can’t be seen on the outside but can affect a person’s daily activities.

Invisible disabilities include:

  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Dyslexia
  • Learning disabilities

Here are some tips for talking to kids about invisible disabilities:

  • Explain that some people have disabilities that we can’t see that often affect how they act, learn, and interact with other people.
  • Explain that the person can’t always control how they act or feel.
  • Tell them that everyone has strengths and challenges and learns differently.
  • Encourage them to respond with compassion.

By telling your child that invisible disabilities exist, you’re teaching them that there can be more to a situation than meets the eye.

Talking to Kids About a Learning Disability

Children with learning disabilities like dyslexia or ADHD may get classroom accommodations such as more time to take tests or extra help. Your child may think this is unfair. Explain that fair doesn’t necessarily mean equal and that we all need different types of help to do our best.

How a Child’s Age Factors In

An older child reads information on a cell phone

When talking to kids about disabilities, keep in mind that their age plays a role in the type and amount of information that they are able to understand and handle.

Here are some guidelines to follow when talking to children in different age groups.

Toddlers

When talking to toddlers about disabilities, use direct and simple answers. Try to avoid talking about your interpretation of how people feel about their disabilities. Remind your child that staring and pointing are not acceptable.

Children in Elementary School

For elementary school age children, respond to your child’s questions with facts. If you don’t know the answer to a question, be honest.

If your child has a classmate with a disability, encourage them to view their classmate as a potential friend. By asking the classmate about the things that they like to do, your child may learn that they share common interests.

Children in Middle and High School

Unfortunately, middle and high school age children often engage in bullying. Children with disabilities are often targeted by bullies because of their differences.

Tell your child that everyone is different in their own way, and that they should avoid ableist and derogatory terms. This will encourage your child to accept all people and discourage them from bullying or making fun of people with disabilities.

Children in this age group have the ability to understand more advanced information about disabilities.

Key Points on How to Talk to Kids About Disabilities

Regardless of your child’s age, you should talk to your child about people with disabilities in an appropriate way.

Here are some key points to remember when having these discussions.

Acknowledge the Differences

It’s tempting to brush aside differences when talking about disabilities. However, refusing to talk about differences may lead to misunderstanding and assumptions.

Instead, acknowledge that some people have disabilities and talk about how these disabilities affect their lives. Use a matter-of-fact tone and stick to the facts.

Focus on Similarities

When talking about disabilities, highlight similarities between your children and people with disabilities.

If your child has a disability, highlight the similarities between your child and their classmates. Explain that everyone is different and needs support in different ways.

Discuss How to Help

Finally, remind your child that many people play a role in helping people with disabilities. Depending on the disability, these may include doctors, therapists, caregivers, teachers, and community members.

If your child has a disability, this information may give them more confidence about their future and what they can achieve. If your child does not have a disability, this discussion can make them more empathetic toward people with disabilities. They may even want to volunteer with organizations that support people with disabilities.

Provide Resources

Providing your child with age-appropriate resources about people with disabilities can help them better understand what it’s like to live with different disabilities and make them empathetic toward those with different abilities.

How to talk to kids about disabilities can be challenging. However, with a little planning and some of the tips listed in this guide, this important conversation is likely to help them better understand themselves and others.

How to Talk About Disability FAQs

What are 6 tips to talk to your kids about disabilities?

Here are 6 basic tips to talk to a child about disabilities:

  • Research the disability beforehand
  • Be honest and direct
  • Use age-appropriate language
  • Keep the discussion positive
  • Use respectful terms
  • Emphasize commonalities

Should you tell a child about their disability?

Many experts recommend talking to a child about their disability. They say children deserve to understand their health and the resources available to them so they can reach their maximum potential.

However, the final decision is always up to the parent. The child’s age, level of understanding, and culture may also play a role in a family’s decision to have that conversation.

What is the correct way to talk about disabilities?

You should always use people-first language when talking to children about disabilities. In other words, you should emphasize the person rather than the disability.

For example, you should say “a classmate with Down syndrome” and not “a Down Syndrome classmate.” This type of language helps show kids that people with disabilities are more than just their disability.

How to talk about kids with disabilities the right way?

Kids often have questions when classmates have disabilities. They may wonder why a student uses a wheelchair or acts a certain way in class.

Parents can help by talking about disabilities objectively using direct and age-appropriate language. They should avoid making assumptions about how the student feels about their disabilities.

It’s also recommended that parents mention how people like doctors and therapists help people with disabilities and stress that everyone is different in their own way.

Is special needs okay to say?

Yes, special needs is okay to say. It emphasizes that everyone has unique needs.

You can also explain to a child that everyone has strengths and challenges and learns differently.

What is ableism for kids?

When explaining what ableism is for kids, tell them that it’s prejudice, discrimination, or bullying against individuals with disabilities. Tell them that it’s not fair or nice to be ableist, and that they should avoid ableist words or language.

Why is it important to teach kids about disabilities?

Teaching kids about disabilities will create a more inclusive classroom environment where every child is treated with the proper respect. It will also make students more empathetic by showing them what it’s like to live with a disability.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “What is Cerebral Palsy?” Retrieved July 11, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/facts.html.
  2. Cincinnati Children’s. “How to Talk to Kids About People with Disabilities.” Retrieved July 11, 2023, from https://blog.cincinnatichildrens.org/healthy-living/child-development-and-behavior/how-talk-kids-people-disabilities/.
  3. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. “American Sign Language.” Retrieved July 11, 2023, from https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/american-sign-language.
  4. National Library of Medicine. StatPearls. “Erb Palsy.” Retrieved July 11, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513260/.
  5. Seattle Children’s Hospital. “Respecting Differences: How to Talk With Your Child About Disabilities.” Retrieved July 11, 2023, from https://www.seattlechildrens.org/health-safety/keeping-kids-healthy/development/respecting-differences-disabilities/.
  6. Shriners Children’s. “Erb’s Palsy.” Retrieved July 11, 2023, from https://www.shrinerschildrens.org/en/pediatric-care/erbs-palsy.
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