I’ve encountered a lot of parents and professionals who are reluctant to talk to disabled children about their disabilities.
People often believe that children with disabilities are innocent, and that they can protect their innocence with silence. They express concerns along the lines of “I don’t want him to think something is wrong with him,” or “I don’t want her to feel different,” or “I don’t want them to feel bad about themself.”
You can’t protect disabled kids this way. They know that they are different, and they know that this difference is perceived negatively.
Some examples of how kids figure out that they are different:
- Kids watch what other kids do.
- Typically developing younger siblings develop skills that they still haven’t mastered and may never master. They notice. They also notice how their parents react to this.
- Kids with disabilities often see other kids their age doing something that looks fun, try to join in, and find that they can’t keep up. They notice, and they have feelings about this.
- They also notice when other kids think they’re weird or boring and avoid them.
- If they go to a special education program, they notice that other kids don’t take the short bus to school (and they hear what other kids say about the short bus, or they see it in their body language.)
- They also notice that their school is really different from schools on TV and in stories.
- All the kids their age on TV and in stories can do things that they can’t do. They notice.
- Disabled kids often struggle to understand something that’s clear to everyone else in the room. They notice that this happens a lot.
- Kids with disabilities get called the r-word, or the moral equivalent.
- Adults expect them to do things that they can’t on a regular basis. Other kids their age can. Adults are disappointed or angry. They notice.
- Kids notice when they have to go to therapy and other kids don’t.
- Kids notice when doctors hold them down for painful procedures while they struggle and cry. They notice that this doesn’t happen to kids in stories and that it’s not in any of the books about being a kid.
- They notice that they have a lot of tests and that they’re talked to in ways that other kids aren’t.
- They are often required to follow rules that other kids don’t have to follow. They notice that, too.
- Parents talk about how tired, scared, and overwhelmed they are by their child’s needs or navigating the systems. Kids overhear.
- Many kids also eventually overhear the name of their condition and google it.
- And any number of other things.
Your silence doesn’t protect them from any of these experiences; it just isolates them. Kids are already bearing the pain of disability and of other people’s reactions to their disability. If no one will talk to them about it, they are also very, very alone. You can’t protect their innocence; you can break the silence that isolates them.