Many people have no idea how to react to a child with disabilities, or their parents. Do we ignore the obvious – that the child is in a wheelchair or struggling to speak normally? Should we ask questions about the child’s condition? We want to be sensitive — but worry about saying the wrong thing.
Even more worrying is what our own child may blurt out!
How to react
When you meet a child with disabilities for the first time, try to look beyond the condition to connect to the person inside. Children with disabilities are people, just like anyone else. Their disability is part of them, but does not define them. It does not tell you what the child likes and dislikes, what interests them, what makes them smile.
Once you start focusing on the individual, appropriate comments come more easily. You may notice that the child has a smile that lights up the room, or that he is wearing a really cute jacket. Say so! Aim to react to the child, and his parents, in the same way as you would any other.
If you have a question about the disability, or if you want to know the best way to handle a situation, go ahead and ask. Try to wait until you are able to speak privately instead of blurting out your question in front of other people. A common dilemma is what to do when you see the child struggling to press buttons on a phone, cut up food on his plate, or negotiate difficult terrain. Should you rush in to help, or let the child do these things for himself? Only the child (or his parents) can answer that question.
Talking to children about others with disabilities
Your own child might be curious about people with disabilities. They may ask questions like, “What’s wrong with that girl?” Use age appropriate language to explain why some people look, talk, or move differently. For example, a four year old child will not understand, “Mary has cerebral palsy.” But he may understand, “Mary’s muscles don’t work the same way yours do.”
Avoid describing another child’s disability as “sad” or “awful.” Your child may then feel sorry for the person, instead of just accepting them as they are. Also make it clear that the child with disabilities is not ‘sick’. He or she is just different from other children. But not completely different. Point out things that the child with a disability has in common with your child, “Mary loves going to the beach, just like you do.” “Mary loves it when you talk to her, even though she isn’t able to talk herself.”
What if it’s your own child who has a disability?
Your response to your child’s disability will influence the way he sees himself. So, while it’s important to acknowledge the challenges he or she may face, you should also focus on the positives … what they CAN do. Expressing sadness over their limitations or anxiety over their future will only make your child feel sad and anxious too.
Your child may not be able to achieve everything you hoped and planned for. But he will remind you every day that life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful! Try to focus on the things your child is good at – even if it’s just something small – and all the things you love about him, from his sunny nature to his patience, determination or courage.
If your child is able to understand, tell him or her about others with a similar disability who have become successful. These successful role models can inspire your child and help them feel hopeful about the future.
19-year old Ntando Mahlangu was born with fibular hemimelia, which affected the development of his lower legs. In 2012, when he was ten years old, his legs were amputated at the knee. Later that same year, he was fitted with his first pair of blades, so he could pursue his love of athletics at school.
Earlier this month, at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, Ntando won two gold medals – for the men’s long jump and the men’s 200 metre sprint. All in all, the South African paralympic team won four gold medals, one silver and two bronze.
Paralympians succeed despite all kinds of disabilities, including intellectual disability. Their courage and determination gave rise to the International Paralympic Committee development arm of the I’mPOSSIBLE programme, which aims to challenge and change young people’s perception of those with impairments, thus bringing about a more inclusive society.
The name was inspired by an iconic moment during the closing ceremony of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games. As the word ‘Impossible’ floated from the roof the stadium, paralympic rowing champion Alexey Chuvasev climbed a 15-metre long rope to drop an apostrophe between the letters ‘I’ and ‘m’, changing it to ‘I’mPOSSIBLE’ and showing the world that people with disabilities can achieve anything they want.
Children with profound intellectual disability
While not all people with disabilities can go on to sporting greatness, everyone has something to contribute. No one knows that better than the staff at LITTLE EDEN. Our special angels teach us valuable lessons about patience, acceptance and how to find joy in everyday life.
They also often surprise us with what they are able to achieve, given enough love, encouragement and praise.
We’ve watched children learn to walk against all odds, mastering wobbly legs thought to be too weak to carry them. We’ve heard children who couldn’t talk keep on practicing until they can turn unintelligible sounds into words we can understand. And we’ve shared triumphant moments when a child affected by cerebral palsy manages to control stiff little fingers to grip a spoon and feed themselves.
These moments fill our hearts with just as much pride as that felt by the parents of a child who wins a maths competition at school or gets picked for the first rugby team. And they offer valuable insight into the way to react to children with disabilities and their parents.
Keep up to date with the latest achievements of our special angels, by joining our email address list.
For more information about the LITTLE EDEN Society, please contact Public Relations & Communications Officer Lebogang Mashiane on firstname.lastname@example.org or call +27 (0) 11 609 7246 during office hours.