“Why are you in a wheelchair?”
It is a question I get asked, in every style and manner one could think of, by children from every background, almost every time I am in a public place.
I have also been asked some form of that question by children of varying levels of ability to understand the answer. Recently, while meeting kids participating in the Social Skills Camp at Friendship Circle, I was confronted by nearly half a dozen campers over the course of an hour that were curious to know “What’s wrong with you?”
I was diagnosed with a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy (called Friedreich’s Ataxia) when I was 12 years old and still walking (albeit not well, more like I’d been spun on the merry-go-round one too many times).
I started using the wheelchair part-time when I was 14 and my progressive disease took over from there, by 20 I was in a wheelchair full-time and at 26, I can no longer step or stand. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with me (no more so than there is with anyone else).
But, I certainly won’t say all this to a child.
So how should one answer “Why is that person in a wheelchair?” or “What is wrong with them?” to a child with special needs.
1. Encourage questions
So often I see parents shush their child or scold them when they verbalize a natural curiosity with regards to a physical disability. This holds true for all children, regardless of age or ability. Parents: Encourage the questions that you can answer in a positive way.
Example: “Their body is made differently than ours, and they use the wheelchair to get around. There isn’t anything wrong with being different, it’s actually pretty cool!”
Some children with special needs will want further information, where some will quickly move on to something else. The point here is to not create a taboo about being different. Chances are a child with an intellectual or developmental disability will be told, to their face, that there is something wrong with them (especially because their disability is not visible). Having it reinforced that different doesn’t equal wrong, is an important step in securing self-esteem.
2. Talk It Up
For the child whose curiosity cannot be satisfied, use the opportunity to point out all the cool things people with that particular physical disability can do. People who use wheelchairs do almost every sport imaginable, from rugby to track, with the help of some pretty nifty equipment.
People with visual impairments have their own soccer leagues and many have a talent for the arts. People with hearing impairments have their very own language, American Sign Language! And, that’s only the beginning!
3. Go to the Source
It is always good practice to make children comfortable with people who are different from them. That being said, each circumstance and each child is different.
When possible, encourage the child to ask the person, or accompany you while you ask the person why they live life differently.
REMEMBER: Most people with a physical disability would rather be asked than talked about behind their backs. We must always be respectful of accepting what they tell us and not pushing for details and be aware that some individuals have both physical and intellectual disabilities and may have difficulty answering questions. In these situations a parent or adult plays an important role.
Before approaching the individual, discuss what you will ask and approach with an introduction to make clear your child’s intent to learn.
Parent: “Hello, my name is Pam and this is my son, Adam. Adam asked me why you use a wheelchair. Would it be alright to ask you that?”
Parent: “You seem to get around very well! My daughter, Eden, was wondering why you move differently.”
Of course, circumstances are not always best to approach someone. For children with social interaction limitations, it may be best for a parent or adult to answer their questions themselves. In these cases be sure to educate them on which words and names are or are not appropriate.
4. A Name is Not Just a Name
Just as you don’t want your child labeled by certain derogatory terms, so I don’t want to be labeled with hurtful or limiting terms.
Make sure to use “People First” Language—ex. Person in a wheelchair vs. wheelchair user
Names (not descriptions of disability e.g. “blind” or “deaf” boy)
Derogatory Terms (e.g. cripple, handicapped)
“Wrong” (e.g. “What’s wrong with you?”)
It is my sincere belief that we all have a “disability” of some kind: a limitation that we must overcome or adapt our lives to. Some disabilities are simply more prominent than others. Everyone can learn to respect other peoples’ limitations, and no child should be chastised when they notice a limitation of someone in the world they live in.
Instead, help them understand that there are disabilities and differences everywhere in the world around them, including their own, making the world the tapestry of colors and experiences that it is.