Increasing Understanding: Teaching Kids about Inclusion and Acceptance

Celebrated on December 3rd each year, International Day of Persons with Disabilities aims to raise awareness about disabilities and promote inclusion of and accessibility for all. With this designated day comes the reminder of the responsibility of teaching your child about acceptance and inclusion. Kids are naturally curious, and they may notice someone they see or someone they know that looks or behaves differently than them and will ask questions. Here are some tips and suggestions for answering those inquisitive questions and creating a culture of understanding and inclusion.

Give the facts

It’s important for your child to know that while a person may be different than them, there is nothing “wrong” with them. Use words and phrases that your child will understand. For example, if your child’s classmate is in a wheelchair, say something like “The muscles in her legs don’t work the same as yours or mine, so her wheelchair helps her move around instead”. Make sure to leave out emotional words, like how the disability is “sad” or “awful”; you don’t want your child to pity the person. Positive language is key. Additionally, here are a few others things that are particularly important to explain to your child in easy-to-understand language:

  • Some people are born with disabilities, some develop disabilities later

  • People with disabilities aren’t “sick” or contagious

  • Explain the equipment they might use and how it helps them

Change the way you speak about those with disabilities

Kids will pick up on the language you use to describe someone’s disability. If you say something like “he thinks like a 2-year-old”, it may be easy for your child to understand the concept, but this kind of phrase has a negative connotation. Instead, say something like “his brain thinks a little differently than yours”. Additionally, be on the lookout for hurtful words, even when used as a “playful” insult towards another friend, and negative labels. Hurtful words such as “slow” and “retarded” perpetuate negative stereotypes of those with disabilities. Try to eliminate using negative words that label others as different in your day-to-day life, and if your child uses it, explain why it is harmful and discourage future use of the words.

Teach about abilities, not just disabilities

It’s important that your child knows that just because someone may not be able to walk or hear or learn the same way they can, it does not mean they can’t share common traits and interests. Having a disability is a trait, not an identity. For example, a person may have autism, but they are not autistic. The difference of just a few small words make a big difference in promoting acceptance.

Related: Talking to Kids About Racial Inequality and Other Tough Topics

Explain to your child how they are similar to the person with a disability-- for instance, point out how their classmate also enjoys playing with Legos or watching football or dancing. It’s important to help your child understand that we each have traits that make us unique, but those differences are also what make us special and it's important to celebrate our differences. We also have a lot in common if we just take the time to learn about each other.

Read kids books that include characters of all abilities

An excellent way to help your child learn about disabilities is to read books with storylines about including people who are different than you or books that have someone with a disability as a main character. There are online lists of many books that you could choose and read together with your child, helping to normalize people of all abilities and increase acceptance.

Be aware of how you respond around those with disabilities

If you’re nervous or awkward around someone with a disability, your child will pick up on it. Stay calm and positive and don’t stare. Additionally, if you are feeling negative feelings towards a person that is outwardly different than you, it might be important to take a moment to step back and examine your own views and assumptions about others. Try to reframe your thinking to align with what you’re teaching your kids: how to understand and be empathetic towards those who are different than you.