All Wheelchair users have faced this at some point - the dreaded conversation between kids and adults when they first see us. You can see it in the adults eyes as their child innocently points at us, the flicker of fear, concern and anxiety - Poor things! Inside they're thinking *gasp* that person is... different?! yikes; how do I explain this one?! I want to be careful! The dread filling them, because disability is such a stigmatised and sensitive topic and they don't want their child to be bad...
*Shivers in overwhelm* DREADED!
but it doesn't have to be, because like you, we are just people. There's no need to dread us, alongside your good intentions! Besides, you're doing your best :-)
Its after the initial shock of seeing someone disabled or different to them, that the questions begin...
Kid: “why are they in a wheelchair?”.
As an autistic, disabled chronically ill, wheelchair user, I have noticed that this question can go one of four ways-
* Adult 1: “maybe they have poorly legs & need rest to make their legs feel better? I don’t know.”
* Adult 2: “they’re not right in the head/should be in a home”
* Adult 3: “ssssh! Don’t look! Stop talking about it!”
* Adult 4: “they are too young & healthy-so its probably nothing. They just lazy kiddo”
I have experienced all four- & many disabled people have experienced similar- & this is why In society, we need to talk about these types of conversations, & learn how to teach our kids about disability- instead of misguiding, invalidating or ignoring the kids questions.
While on tour in Switzerland, I noticed two very interesting things- for a place of majestic mountains, forests, lakes & cobbled hills -it’s a place of incredible accessibility, easy navigation & well organised structure, where people are quiet, calm & respectful- always offerings to go above & beyond to help you.
I also noticed that people stare, unashamedly if you’re a wheelchair user- a lot- I’m talking like 7/10 people that weren’t busy or distracted, would be staring at me - hard and unhidden - as we rolled by.
This staring, I’m used to-but it has made me think, of how we use these moments as learning lessons for our children when we see a wheelchair or mobility /access aid user in public.
Anywhere, but especially in Switzerland, Children would stare in open mouth astonished awe. Children would stare in curiosity. Some children were scared, while other Children would smile & point yelling “wheels!” “Roues!”. One cutie, called me “ninja wheels!”, while I clambered across rocks (out of my wheelchair & sort of dragging myself across the flat rocks on my tushy) to get to a waterfall. They’re young- often judgement free & accepting -which is why we must teach them true disability empowerment. They are blank canvases ready to learn-so let us teach them right! Besides being called Ninja Wheels was pretty cool for me - like you, I have personality and quirks and a sense of humour, sometimes, with the disabled persons consent, its okay to respectfully 'joke' a little about Disability, because it doesnt dehumanise us. It's no different to joking about any other human experience. I mean, I could never do stand up comedy, but thats not the point... see? Its okay to giggle at things like this! :-)
Yet The child's adult, was MORTIFIED, poor thing, instantly telling them off, and pulled them away until they were in tears. I understand why the adult reacted like this - and its not their fault at all - the lesson here, is that I realised in this moment, that the kid was innocently involving me and joking with me, like they would with any other human - that's good and I want more of those reactions! it becomes ablest to 'other' us so much that we are not even treated like other people, even if the intention is good.
This also taught me that we need to listen to disabled adults and trust our communications - because had the adult realised it possible through that stressful moment of overwhelm and dread and horror and good intentions, they could have seen my laughing, smiling, nodding, relaxed reaction and trusted my reaction communicated that I was okay with this language being used. I would have communicated if it wasn't - even if the communication was somewhat hidden behind a mask - if you look hard enough you can tell, and if you're not sure what genuine communication is being showcased, you can always ask, and respect them if they don't wish to answer, because you're not entitled in any way. This also taught me that a one size fits all approach cannot help all disabled people because naturally we are human, and diverse and every other human being is approached and communicated with differently, so why not us?
We need to teach children that its okay to make mistakes as long as we try to recover and make things better. Its also important to teach children that we must look to the disabled people for their repsonses to guide our communication, just as much as we do for non disabled adults. If you said something wrong or offensive, chances are they'll let you know, even if subtle! Teaching children to be scared of talking or joking with us, doesn't help them humanise us, and only furthers potential 'othering' as they grow into adults, because they weren't taught any better.
Yet what I did discover in Switzlerand while on my speaking workshop tour, is that all the kids had one thing in common- a whole lot of questions- & many had parents or carers who would usher them away, invalidate or ignoring their questions.
So when we see disabled adults in public, how do we teach our children? We Role Model Kindness, consideration and humanisation, because there is nothing scary or wrong about a disabled person, and its time we teach our children this :-)
As a autistic and disabled chronically ill wheelchair user, these are my thoughts:
Kid: “why are they wearing ear phones?” (Ear defenders)
Adult : “I’m not sure, but maybe the head phones are ear defenders, which means they stop the ears from hurting from too much noise. I like to go to quiet places too sometimes when I am stressed. The headphones would be helpful to make everywhere quieter nand less stressful, wouldn't it?"
Kid: “why do they have a walking stick?”
Adult: “I don’t know. Maybe they find it easier to walk with a stick? Some people can walk without, some people need to walk with. We are all different aren’t we?”
There are some quotes I try to teach children I work with:
Adult to younger children:
“If you want to, you can politely ask them- just remember they do not have to tell you, & that’s okay”
Kid: “but why? I want to know”
Adult: “we have to be respectful. If someone says no, we have to respect their choice. It’s like this-You don’t always like to talk to people about what hurts or scares you- It would make you sad if someone forced you to tell them about what scares or hurts you. So we don’t want to make the disabled person sad or scared, so if they don’t want to tell us, we respect them, by not forcing them to tell us. If they say no, you thank them for their time, and walk away”
Adult to older child:
Adult: “if you want to ask them, say this:
“I’m not entitled to your life story, but could you please tell me why you are in a wheelchair? I understand if not.”
then teach them to respect, & politely move on if declined.
it’s also important to teach children consent - no one owes them an explanation to their existence or medical history, & no one owes them any answer at all to any of their questions.
Answering questions can be private & traumatic. We may be okay with discussing how a mobility helps us but not our medical history & that’s okay too. sometimes it’s simply just ableist to assume that we are okay to answer questions of such nature at any given time.
I’m usually fine to answer kids curious questions about my disability- but sometimes I’m too shutdown to process my own name, let alone answer questions.
Overall? No shaming for asking questions. Questions are good and show natural curiosity to improve - so let them.
I also noticed in Switzerland that some adults were full blown disgusted or scared by my presence in a wheelchair sadly-If adults are scared -then kids can be taught that fear too.
With care & encouragement we can teach kids to be respectful & overcome fears, by humanising strangers.
If you see a child recoiling from a #Disabled person in public out of fear, you can educate them about diversity & humanise the disabled person- but maybe not educate about diversity there & then- because they are too scared to learn right now. Instead try to minimise the fear- by validating it- & humanising the disabled people.
*Kid is scared of disabled person*
Adult: “I wonder what their favourite colour is? Maybe it’s purple because they are wearing a lot of purple. What other colours can you see them wearing?”
Ask slightly unrelated easy questions that humanises & distracts focus from the scare & brings it to something more well known-everyone has a favourite Colour- therefore disabled people become less scary, once they are more relatable
adult: “It’s okay. Their #Wheelchair is quite noisy, & they look a bit different- it’s okay that this is a bit scary. I think we need to remember that they are not scary as people-They are likely very nice. They might feel sad, that people are scared of them. What could we do to make them feel less sad?”
Kid: “I don’t know.”
Adult: “How would we make people we care about feel better?”
Kid: “I give my friend a toy!” “I hug them!” “I share my stuff!” “I play with them!”
Adults : “you share kindness with your friends & it makes them feel better. maybe we can share kindness with the person in the wheelchair- we could smile at them, wave & say hello to make them less sad. They’re just like us, & like kindness & smiles too!”
Humanising disabled strangers is important in challenging misconceptions, & when the fear has passed, you can move on to teaching about respect, equality & inclusion at a more suitable time.
I get a lot of stares- I get a lot of awful comments & fear- but I also get a lot of well meaning adults who do their best- & that’s what’s important- keep learning- it’s a learning journey for us all after all.
x <3 x