Why can’t that man walk?

It is important to know how to talk to children about disability. The first step is to speak positively about impairments.

Children are curious and will often ask personal and difficult questions, especially when they see something new or interesting. As adults, the way we react to the child’s question and the answer we give will have a direct impact on the child.

When it comes to questions about disability, it is important that we speak to our children in a positive manner without using dramatic and frightening explanations, or negative and derogatory words.

Avoid saying things like: “You’d better wear your seatbelt, as you don’t want to end up like that poor man in the wheelchair.”

Why: It is not appropriate to make assumptions that all wheelchair users have had accidents, to use scare tactics to make children wear their seatbelts, or to reinforce the stigma that disability is something to be pitied.

Consider: Talk about the differing causes of disability in a calm way; refer to the fact that some people are born with disabilities, while others get them later through illness or accidents, and make sure that you use age-appropriate language and examples.

Adults often turn or look away when they see a person with a disability, while children often point and stare.

Avoid telling your child to look away: “Don’t look at them, as you will make them feel uncomfortable.”

Why: It might make the child feel that there is something wrong with the person and that they shouldn’t speak to or approach people with disabilities.

Consider: Encourage your child to make eye-contact and say hello if they would like to. Remember that children take the lead from you, so keep in mind your own body language and words.

All children notice differences and it is up to adults to talk about what they see and answer their questions honestly and carefully.

Avoid approaching a person with a disability and saying, “My child wants to know what happened to you.”

Why: Disability is very personal. While some people feel comfortable sharing their experiences, other do not – especially with a stranger who they may never see again.

Consider: Talk to your child about how the person might use their wheelchair to help them get around and that it gives them independence to go shopping and do work, rather than making the child feel sorry for them.

Remember, the words we use, the way we speak, what our body language conveys and how we answer our children’s questions will have a direct impact on how they experience disability and interact with people with disabilities.


Dr Emma McKinney is a “children with disabilities” specialist, a post doctoral fellow at Stellenbosch University and owns a company called Disability Included. email: emma@disabilityincluded.co.za

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