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  1. What does disability mean?
  2. Talking to children about others with disabilities
  3. Teaching empathy while explaining disability
  4. Things to remember

A disability is a physical (of the body) or mental (of the brain) problem that can make it hard or even impossible for a person to walk, see, hear, speak, learn, or do other important things. Some disabilities are permanent and others only last for a short time.

Disabilities can be:

  • something a person was born with
  • the result of accident or abuse
  • the result of an illness or old age

There are lots of different types of disabilities. These include:

  • Autism spectrum disorder
A developmental disability that affects communication and social interaction. Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a developmental disorder characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. We now know that there is not one autism but many types, caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences.
  • Deaf-blindness
Having both hearing and visual impairments together. Deaf-blindness is the condition of little or no useful sight and little or no useful hearing. There are different degrees of vision loss and auditory loss within each individual, thus making the deafblind community unique with many types of deaf-blindness involved.
  • Deafness
Partial or complete hearing loss. There are four types:

  • auditory processing disorders
  • conductive
  • sensorineural
  • mixed
  • Hearing impairment
A permanent or fluctuating hearing disability, not included under the definition of “deafness.”
  • Developmental delay
A delay in one or more of the following areas:

  • physical development
  • cognitive development; communication
  • social or emotional development
  • adaptive [behavioural] development
  • Emotional disturbance
A condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree:

  • an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors
  • an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers
  • inappropriate types of behaviour or feelings under normal circumstances
  • a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression
  • a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems

The term includes schizophrenia.

The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance.

  • Intellectual disability
A significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning, existing along with deficits in adaptive behaviour and manifested during the developmental period.
  • Multiple disabilities
Simultaneous impairments (such as intellectual disability-blindness, intellectual disability-orthopaedic impairment, etc.), the combination of which results in challenges in other areas, e.g. language development. The term does not include deaf-blindness.
  • Orthopaedic impairment
Severe orthopaedic (bone or muscle) impairment. The term includes impairments caused by a congenital (something one is born with) abnormality, impairments caused by disease (e.g. poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis), and impairments from other causes (e.g. cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).
  • Other health impairment
Having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, that is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, haemophilia, lead poisoning, leukaemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anaemia, and Tourette syndrome.
  • Specific learning disability
A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as:

  • perceptual disabilities
  • brain injury
  • minimal brain dysfunction
  • dyslexia
  • developmental aphasia

The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; of intellectual disability; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

  • Speech or language impairment
A communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment.
  • Traumatic brain injury
An acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both. The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behaviour; physical functions; information processing; and speech.
  • Visual impairment, including blindness
An impairment in vision, including both partial sight and blindness.


(Categories of Disability Under IDEA | Centre for Parent Information and Resources

Disability – TIPS for Parents

Parents face a couple of situations where disabilities and children are concerned;

  1. Questions from their children regarding other people who experience disability
  2. The experience of disability either on the part of the parent, or on the part of the child

Talking to children about others with disabilities

It is very important to be prepared and to answer your child’s questions about disabilities as openly and honestly as you can.

Many children have someone in their life, or have seen someone with a disability, and they often have questions to ask. Caregivers and teachers need to be prepared to deal with this natural curiosity openly and honestly – always bearing in mind that by nature, children have very open hearts and minds, so the earlier children learn that people with disabilities need to be seen and treated as people first, the better.

The following tips can help you be prepared to talk to your child about people with disabilities when he or she comes to you for answers.

Talking to children of different ages about others living with disabilities

Age 2-4

Most children like you are born with everything they need, but sometimes children are born without the things they need. Sometimes they need crutches or wheelchairs or braces to help them do what you do naturally.

Age 5-8

Children are all different. Some things that are easy for you to do are very difficult for other children to do. They sometimes find it much harder to do things because maybe their body or their brain does not work the way yours does. They need extra help and support to do certain things. Can you imagine how brave children with physical disabilities are to keep trying and working at doing things?  Aren’t they amazing?

Age 9-12

Whenever you see someone with a disability, remember that even though they are having a hard time, they’re still children, and like anybody else, need friends and understanding.

Talking to children of different ages who are living with disabilities

Age 2-4

We don’t know why but sometimes children are born without everything their bodies need, and that’s what happened to you. That means you’re going to have to do things a bit differently and work harder, and we’re going help you be your best all the way.

Age 5-8

It’s really horrible for you when your body can’t do everything you want it to do. It’s not fair that you have to work so hard to make your body do what you want. But everyone has some activities that are easy for them, and some that need more effort. You have this problem, but you have done so amazingly even with this problem, AND you have lots of other talents and things that you do well too. Whenever you feel mad, bad or sad about your disability, come and tell me all about it.

Age 9-12

It’s not nice to be born with a disability that makes things harder. But remember your abilities, too and work to strengthen them. It’s natural sometimes to feel angry but try not to give up. If you ever need to talk about your feelings you can always come to me and I will listen and get extra help if you need it.

At all ages, your attitude as a parent will influence how your child deals with a disability. If you see it as a hopeless situation, so might s/he; but if you are positive and approach it as a challenge to rise to, merely a different path to being one’s best self, this will help your child to deal with their disability with hope and positivity.

Use and make opportunities to share the successes of people with disabilities with your child, to give them inspirational role models to follow.

Spend time with families of children with disabilities, and ensure that your child does not feel like the only child with this disability.

(Adapted from: How to Explain Disability to a Child | My Child Without Limits )

Children, especially young ones, are naturally curious, so when they see someone with a disability, their first instinct is to ask about it. If you see your child staring at someone with a disability, take the lead and start a conversation, but avoid a detailed explanation or a lot of emotion when explaining it. A short and matter-of-fact description will answer your child’s questions while showing her that the person has nothing to be ashamed of.

For example, if you see a child in a wheelchair, you can say to your child, “I see you looking at that little girl in the wheelchair, and you might be wondering why she needs it. Some people’s bodies work a little differently, and her wheelchair helps her move around, just like your legs help you.”

Children are wonderful because by nature they have very open hearts and minds. Childhood is perhaps the best time to create an understanding of the fact that people with disabilities need to be perceived and treated as people first. Ask your child how s/he would feel in somebody else’s shoes, and how s/he would want to be treated — and then teach them to treat others the same way

There are some steps that parents can follow to develop an understanding of disability and people who experience it in their children; these steps include:

  • listen to what your child is saying
  • let your child voice any fears they may have, and ask questions
  • view the situations your child presents from their perspective
  • be truthful with your child, keeping your answers to them age-appropriate (see above) – explain disability to them at a level they can understand
  • satisfy their curiosity; let them sit in a wheelchair if they want to, for example (without making fun of anyone living with disability)
  • stress positive factors; for example – use of a wheelchair allows a person to move around
  • keep in mind that children many times take upon themselves unnecessary responsibility for situations
  • stress both family unity and loyalty
  • be sure to spend extra time with your children
  • encourage your children to help in making your home more accessible
  • remind your children that everything changes
  • the importance of taking time to talk with children about disability cannot be overstated; this includes discussions with siblings, who also need to understand the disability experiences of their sister or brother, as well as disability in general

Understanding disabilities can give a child the capability to give disabilities their proper name and an explanation of what it means, avoiding/reducing anxiety, feelings of guilt over having somehow caused it, or fears of somehow, ‘catching’ it.

Reinforce the idea that “ability – disability” is a continuum (a line) along which all of us are sitting. Some of us are at one end, others at the other end, while others site right in the middle, and these apply to all the things that we can and cannot do.  For example, you can say – I am very abled in singing but a little disabled and not so intelligent when it comes to arithmetic.


Use Respectful Terminology

Children are like sponges and absorb everything they hear. When talking about someone with a disability, remember that words can really hurt so it’s important not to use words that would make someone feel left out, or make them feel that they are “less than” anyone else. Never use negative or cruel words like “cripple,” “retarded,” or “midget,” and instead, use “wheelchair user,” “little person,” and “he has a learning disability.” Don’t use a disability to describe an individual. For example, instead of saying “autistic child,” it’s better to say: “a child on the autism spectrum.”

Emphasise Similarities

It’s important that your child learns that someone with a disability is still the same in a lot of ways — s/he still has feelings, likes to have fun, loves her/his family, and has a favourite sport. Take care to separate the person from his or her disability by talking to your child about how they and the person with the disability are similar.

For example, maybe your child and his neighbour who has Downs syndrome both love to watch football and go swimming. Perhaps they are the same age, or maybe they both have a pet fish. Talking about similarities will show your child that having a disability does not define a person, much like your child’s physical characteristics don’t define them.

Emphasise strengths and similarities

Children share both differences and similarities. Instead of simply telling your child that a person with a disability can’t do something, talk about that individual’s strengths, too. Teach your child to look for strengths instead of just focusing on weaknesses. Also focus on the courage and determination of people with disabilities – many accomplish truly incredible things despite their disability. It’s important for them to learn that just because someone can’t do something, or struggles with one thing, it doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t excel in other areas.

For example, if your child has a hearing-impaired classmate, instead of focusing on the fact that he can’t hear, also ask him what his classmate is good at (maths? running?), and then talk to your child about his own strengths and what he finds to be difficult. Help him see that all humans have their own strengths and weaknesses, and that he should help those just as he would want others to help him in areas with which he struggles.

Address and Condemn Bullying

Children with disabilities are easy targets, and are more likely to be bullied by other children and even adults.  Talk to your child about why intentionally hurting another child’s feelings is wrong, and teach them to apologise when they have done that. It’s important for your child to know that everyone, even someone who looks or acts differently, has feelings just like theirs, and deserves to be treated nicely and with respect.

Treat Their Devices with Respect

Teach your child to treat medical devices, such as canes, wheelchairs, and service dogs, with respect. Make sure they understand that the devices are there to help the person who needs them, and that they are not toys. If your child wants to pet a service dog, give a matter-of-fact explanation for why s/he can’t. For example, you can simply say “That dog isn’t a pet — his job is to help that person see. He’s working right now, so let’s not distract him.”

(Adapted from: Talking to Kids about Disabilities | Teaching Empathy – Family Education

Explaining Disability to Children – Disabled World

Useful links  [Look for support groups for parents of children with disabilities – there are many online]

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