Parents, Let Your Kids Ask Disabled People Questions

Ableism can be fought with education
Navigating a non-inclusive world with an invisible disability
Invisible Disabilities and Casual Ableism

Let's talk about ableism. 

I come from a family full of individuals living with unique disabilities. My mom and I were both born with Charcot-Marie-Tooth, my Aunt was born with Cerebral Palsy, my Uncle became an amputee at a young age, and my cousin lives with autism. The list goes on, really. 

My younger cousins grew up around all of us, so they had plenty of opportunities to ask questions. I remember one of my little cousins asked my Uncle what happened to his legs. He told her the story, but she kept asking. She couldn't wrap her head around the idea of losing a limb. Should she be expected to, though? No, she was seven at the time, and my Uncle was the first person she's ever met with this condition. This disability was brand new to her, and the only way to learn about something new is to ask questions.

Questions from kids should be viewed as a learning experience rather than a nosey or snoopy gesture. Children are naturally curious, and that's something that should be embraced. They'll most likely ask their parents questions about the unknown. They may even ask the disabled person themselves.  

As a parent, I think it's important to read the room while your child explores their search for knowledge. Every disabled person is different. Some may shy away from questions, but others welcome them. Most of us have accepted who we are. We love ourselves and the disabilities that come with us. Answering questions from these innocent little souls often gives us a sense of hope and excitement to inform! 

The worst thing you can do as a parent is to shush your child or quickly turn them in the other direction. This will enforce a feeling of embarrassment. The child will feel wrong for asking any questions, and they may struggle to communicate with disabled people as they grow up. The lack of engagement with the disabled community is what fuels ableism. 

To stop ableism, we must first discuss what that is and why it matters.

What is ableism?

Ableism, in its simplest terms, is prejudice against disabled people. It assigns inferior value to those who live with disabilities by defining us as our disability rather than making that a fraction of who we are. 

Ableist language can ridicule or criticize the normalcy of a disabled person's life. Ableism can be intentional, but a lot of displays of this attitude are not. It's safe to assume that almost everyone has made an ableist remark or comment at least once in their lifetime. With that being said, it's nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, you can use this article as a chance to educate yourself to identify and refrain from this type of language. 

Here are a few examples of everyday ableism: 

Jokes: 

Joking has been a positive coping mechanism in my family. Since we were surrounded by many disabled family members, it became easy to laugh at our struggles together. However, there is a fine line with joking that must not be crossed. Joking can be incredibly inappropriate at times, and it's essential to know when a joke is being taken too far. 

Non-disabled people have no right to initiate these jokes as they have no experience or expertise of what a disabled lifestyle entails. Hearing risky jokes from non-disabled people puts us in an incredibly uncomfortable situation. We're ultimately faced with three choices: laugh it off, call out the joke, or remain in awkward silence. As a person whose been in this situation more than a few times, I'm telling you to simply avoid it altogether. The joke probably wasn't funny anyway, so keep it to yourself. 

Disabled humor in society has degraded us for hundreds of years. It's deeply rooted in our lives. We have been used as an amusement to non-disabled people in many ways. Exhibits of curiosity linger in modern times. Just five years ago, at a local fair, there were multiple displays showcasing people with various disabilities. "The smallest woman in the world" or "watch a limbless man light a cigarette" is just a couple of examples of human's unexplainable strange obsession with disabled people. 

Metaphors: 

Metaphors can be tough to detect because they've become normalized and turned into everyday language. Metaphors like "crippling poverty" or "the blind leading the blind" are harmful to disabled people in the sense that they enforce stereotypes or negative perspectives on a disabled person's quality of life. Crippling enforces the idea that we are trapped or stuck in a miserable life. That's just not the case. The only unfortunate part about being disabled is being ignored while navigating a world never designed for us. 

These metaphors may seem harmless, but they are what belittles the seriousness of this topic. They distract us from the meaning and value that our words hold. 

Euphemisms:

Euphemisms are something that non-disabled people typically use to mask their inability to communicate with disabled people. They imply lack of knowledge and unpleasant feelings toward the disabled community.

Saying things like, "you're just differently-abled" typically resonates from a harmless stance that's meant to be positive. Some may see it as a way of encouraging or helping a disabled person see the brighter side, but let's really think about what that means for a moment. Are any two people capable of the same abilities? Everyone is unique and talented in their own ways, whether they're disabled or not. Everyone is differently abled. 

We aren't challenged, and we don't have special needs. Sure, life can be challenging, but isn't that the case for everyone? Doesn't everyone have special needs? They just vary from person to person, and that has nothing to do with ability. 

Why does ableism matter?

Ableism matters the same way sexism and racism do. Unfortunately, this "ism" is often left out of the conversation even though we face similar civil rights discriminations and prejudices. It excludes us from society and implements the idea that we are less than or broken. We're viewed as incapable and damaged, which furthers the idea that our lives and experiences must be inadequate. 

Because of this, people don't treat us the same. In many cases, I've been babied by people who think they're trying to help. They think it's cute when I stumble, and others have aggressively grabbed my arm when they see a flight of stairs approaching. I can understand where these gestures come from, but if I need help, I'll ask.

Upon explaining my disability, many people suggest specific diets, exercises, or holistic medicines. Although these things can help, they will not cure me. Offering these alternative medicines implies that we need to be fixed. We don't. I'm sorry, but acupuncture will not cure my chronic illness or heal my nerves that progressively deteriorate.  

This type of behavior can lead disabled people to face internalized ableism. It can be easy to fall into the dark hole of believing your life has little worth in an ableist world. Many of us disabled people miss events due to fear of inaccessibility. We push ourselves past limits to prove our worth and capability. Body image issues can arise with today's unreachable beauty standards, especially in terms of fashion.

We fear being a burden to those around us. The actual affliction is the lack of knowledge and empathy non-disabled people display towards our community. We are not the problem. If you are a disabled person struggling with internalized ableism, I suggest seeking mental health help through a disabled specialist. It also doesn't hurt to speak up about how you feel. Many of my friends and family were unfamiliar with ableism until it was brought to their attention. This can help you set healthy boundaries too!

So, what do kids have to do with ableism?

Ableism is something that is taught to us throughout our individual lives and experiences. These patterns are often formed in early childhood years. Maybe you can recall a time where you saw a woman in a wheelchair or a man using a walker when you were young. You probably stared and wondered what was going on. These mobility aids are a new sight for most kids. It will inevitably strike curiosity within them, leading to questions. 

To end ableism and the stigma surrounding the disabled community, we must welcome this and encourage those questions. If you're an adult seeking answers, however, there's a different way to do this. Avoid intrusive questions like, "can you have sex?" which are surprisingly common and weird questions we face. Instead, you can follow disabled activists on different platforms to learn from them or google your questions.

Children are the future, so accepting their inquiring minds and creativity opens doors for change. They have yet to be constricted by the education system or societal constructs, so it's essential to encourage their free thoughts.

Like most of the problems we face in today's world, ableism can be stopped at the root. Children's roots grow fiercely and fast into the ground surrounding them. They absorb information, behaviors, and personalities. With these factors, those children will grow and blossom into adults with their own opinions, and they'll imprint on the world. Adolescent years hold core value on who we will become. They'll determine how that imprint will look. 

Learning about the disabled community through disabled people is the first step we can take together to end the discrimination. Don't be one of the 67% of people that are scared to talk to disabled people.

We are people, too. We are humans. You can become disabled at any point in your life, so make it a priority to include us and learn about us now! 

Charcot-Marie-Tooth type 1a! Let's talk about it.

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