Explaining Disabilities to Children Compassionately

Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay star in Wonder. Credit-IMBD

There are many ways to approach the sensitive subject of disabilities with your children. Be sure to learn the right approach, so your child is prepared to behave with sensitivity.

Children by nature are incredibly curious about the world around them. As a parent, it’s your job to help them understand and interpret what they see so they can make the appropriate responses. Some subjects are more sensitive than others, and almost every parent has experienced a time when they were out in public and their child’s curiosity embarrassed them.

R.J. Palacio, author of the children’s book Wonder, talks about one of those experiences that inspired her to write the New York Times bestselling novel. Palacio says she was at an ice cream shop with her sons when she noticed a little girl with a severe craniofacial difference. She panicked when her son began to cry historically and in an effort to spare the girls feelings from his reaction, she left the store as fast as possible. “I was so mad at myself for the way that I handled it, and for the rest of the day I just kept thinking about all the stuff I wished I’d said and done,” says Palacio. Afterwards, she said, “I’m going to write a book, and it’s going to be about what it must be like to face a world every day that doesn’t know how to face you back” (ABCNews, 2017). The overall theme of her book is to treat everyone with kindness and understanding, which is a great place to start when you want to teach little ones about people with disabilities.

Many parents can relate to Palacio’s reaction. We’re afraid to hurt someone’s feelings because children can be hurtful thorough their ignorance even though they don’t mean to. What we fail to realize often is that children are often very accepting of things that are out of the ordinary as long as they are introduced properly. Here is where the parent needs to step in.

If you have the opportunity to talk to your child about disabilities before your child meets someone with one, then you are lucky because for most people don’t get that luxury. So, if you aren’t one of the fortunate and you are out in public and see your child lock eyes onto a disabled person the first thing you need to do is ensure your attitude is a casual one. You want to make sure your child see’s that your emotions do not change, but at the same time you don’t want to pretend as though this person does not exist either because that is not an appropriate behavior you want them to exhibit either. At this point, your child may say nothing or ask something like “what’s wrong with them?”

Our first reaction to that question is to usually shush them, after all, we don’t want the person to think we raised our child to think that someone with a disability is “wrong,” but we need to remember that children don’t say things the way they mean them. For someone with a limited vocabulary, a person who looks different than everyone else will seem “wrong.” Instead of shushing your child, use this as an opportunity to educate them. You want to gently correct them and answer as honestly as possible. Some things you may say are “there is nothing wrong with them, they have down syndrome,” or “that woman has a wheelchair because she can’t use her legs.”

Being frank with your child and addressing the person with the disability as a woman, man, boy or girl also helps your child remember that besides their obvious visual difference they are still a person. If your child does not say anything at the time you encounter the disabled person, it may still be a good idea to address it later, maybe when you get in the car and it’s still fresh in their mind. You can say something like “do you remember the man in the store who had on a helmet? That person needs it because of their disability.” Now you have the opportunity to explain to your child in words they will understand what a disability is. Be careful to use precise language and avoid words that can be potentially derogatory such as “retarded,” “handicapped,” or “crippled.”

It can also be helpful to help your child learn more about specific disabilities. Simply telling them a person has cerebral palsy only tell them what makes that person different but does not help them understand what is different about them. Go online together and look up what cerebral palsy is and what it’s effect on a person is. Doing this will help your child understand that although this disability affects the way this person moves it does not affect their brain nor is it something they can control.

The most important thing is to remind your child of the golden rule and to set a good example for them when it comes to encountering people who are different.

ABCNews. ‘Wonder’ author R.J. Palacio tells the story behind her inspiration for the book: Part 3 [Video file]. (2017, November 18). Retrieved from

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