By Alex Temblador
I’ve always been close to my sister. I knew that my sister had mental and physical disabilities and that was how she was born, but I didn’t see my sister, Tiffany, as different from everyone else. I just saw her as she was then and as she is to me today, my favorite person.
Growing up, I quickly realized that not everyone had a disabled family member. Moreover, many people didn’t know anyone that was disabled. There weren’t disabled individuals in movies, TV, or books. They existed on the peripheral of life.
I didn’t like that. My sister has always been an integral part of my life and I love sharing her and our relationship with the world. But it wasn’t just the lack of disabled persons in the media that was a problem. Rather, it was how people around me acted when it came to my sister.
I’ve been friends with people for months, even close to a year, before they will ask me about my sister, her condition, or even her life. For a lack of a better term, I think most people are scared to ask me or my father about her, which I don’t quite understand.
I often wonder, are people scared that I’m going to start crying or get angry if they bring her up? Are they unsure of what terminology to use? Or do they just not really care? I think it’s a mix of these, and that too, is a problem. I will not cry or get angry if you ask me about my sister. I’m ecstatic when you do. One of my favorite things to do is talk about my sister and if I feel that way about her, I can only imagine that many other families who have kids with disabilities feel the exact same way.
Daily, I read articles in which parents are implored to discuss race or the LGBT community with their children, but I don’t think I have come across anything on the internet that encourages parents to discuss the disabled community with their children. Which is why I’m doing so now.
Why should you speak to your children about people with disabilities? For many reasons. First, children will eventually run into someone who is disabled, usually at school. Unfortunately, children who are disabled are often outcasted by the structure of their school system into a special education class and are often not included in activities with other students. I have read articles of children with disabilities being bullied at school for how they were born. How proud would you be if your child was the one to stop the bullying of a disabled classmate? How proud would you be if your child befriended one of those disabled students because you spoke to them about people with disabilities?
Similarly, being exposed to different individuals of different backgrounds can teach your child empathy and acceptance. I can recall going to a Chic-fi-la as a child with my sister, father, and brother. I vividly remember a mother, two kids, and a grandmother walking out of the fast food chain with their backs against the wall and fear on their faces as they looked at my sister who sits in a wheelchair and makes noises to communicate her emotions. NO family or children should have to see those reactions to those they love who are disabled.
More important than explaining why you should discuss disabilities with your children or expose your family to more individuals who are disabled, I’d love to share some simple ways in which you and your children can interact with families with disabled kids or individuals who are disabled.
Let’s begin by throwing out the word “retard” from your vocabulary. Just throw it out. “He’s such a retard,” “Why are you acting retarded?” are phrases that I constantly hear around me. It’s not appropriate to use that word that way. When “retard” is used like that, it’s insinuating that being born with a disability is bad or wrong, and it’s not. I liken it to people saying, “That’s so gay,” a phrase that makes being gay or part of the LGBT community, seem bad, and like those born with disabilities, it is not bad. It’s just how you’re born.
If your child uses such language, explain why this is a hurtful phrase with an open and calm conversation. Oftentimes, children aren’t even aware of what some of the things they say entails.
As a rule of thumb, I would encourage people to try using current accepted medical terminology when speaking of people with disabilities, especially those with mental disabilities. By this I mean that “mentally disabled” is more widely accepted than “mentally retarded,” and using “Down-syndrome” to describe a condition is more appropriate than calling someone “slow.” And if you don’t know the correct terminology to use, you have a few options. That technological device that’s usually attached to your hand probably has the ability to answer your questions with a quick Google search. If not, just ask someone with a disabled family member or someone who is disabled what their preferred terms are. Just as people are encouraged to use the proper pronouns of a transgender person, I’d encourage you to use the proper terms for aspects dealing with disabilities.
Secondly, if you are friends with someone who has a disabled child or family member, don’t be afraid to ask that person about their kids or family member. “How is [enter name] doing?” or “How’s school going for [enter name]?” are simple questions! Like any parent or family member, they want to talk about their loved ones. They want to share funny stories, happy moments, sad moments, or bad moments just like you want to (and do) share those EXACT stories about your families with others. I often wonder if people’s fear of offense or appearing unknowledgeable prevents them from asking about kids or family members with disabilities. Please, prove me wrong.
Thirdly, treat someone who is disabled with respect. That’s the simplest way of putting it. Though they may have been born with a condition or disease, or moments in life have caused their disabilities, they don’t want to be treated differently, and their families usually want the same thing.
For example, just because my sister can’t speak or walk or talk, I expect others to acknowledge her with a “hello,” just as they would with everyone else in the room. She may not reply back, but that’s not the point. The point is that you just showed Tiffany and me or my dad, that you see my sister and acknowledge her presence because too often she’s ignored. And that’s not right.
Another easy way of respecting people with disabilities is to NOT park in disabled parking spots at stores and restaurants if you are not disabled. Physical disabilities may not always be visible, but many people rely on the ease of access into a building that these parking spots afford them.
There’s also many great ways that you can expose your children to people with disabilities. Probably the simplest is by introducing a book or movie that features kids with disabilities. Click the picture to be redirected to a site that has a great list of books about children with disabilities:
When your child does meet someone who is disabled, know that your kids may have questions about why the person they met is in a wheelchair, has physical deformities, is unable to talk, makes noises, etc. Answer those questions. Don’t ignore them. You have the chance to educate your child in positive ways about different groups of people in society.
Furthermore, don’t hush your child if they want to ask those questions in front of someone with a disability. It’s okay. I know my sister’s condition pretty well, and I might be able to give better answers if your child asks me why my sister doesn’t talk than you may. I love when children are inquisitive and I love showing them just how much my sister makes me happy, so they can see that they have nothing to fear when it comes to her or others like her.
I don’t think it’s difficult to interact with different groups of people in this world. As humans, we have the great gift of empathy, the ability to have emotional connections with others. As someone who grew up with a wonderful sister who was born with mental and physical disabilities, I can testify that interacting with her can change your life. Interacting with parents and children and families of people with disabilities can better yours and your child’s understanding of people who are different; better yet, I guarantee that it will show you and your kids just how similar you are.