The Misconceptions We Reinforce When Talking to Children about Disability, and Solutions

Itzel and Javi Last school year my youngest daughter befriended a young boy, Jonathan in her class with Down Syndrome. A few months into the school year she and my older daughter were having regular conversation about playing with Jonathan. Throughout that stretch of time I was met by periodic questions and comments about why Jonathan. Why doesn’t Jonathan say words? Why does Jonathan have different rules than other children? Why does Jonathan have his own teacher? Many times the questions came across as rhetorical. It sounded like the came out of a conversation that the teachers had with the students. The questions were more about receiving confirmation from me, a former early childhood special educator and researcher of high-quality inclusive education. But I wasn’t confirming what other adults were telling them. Most often, I was clarifying misconceptions.

Recognizing the Misconceptions and Laying a Foundation

During my first ten of twelve years working in early childhood education, I often saw deficits in children who were disabled. When I learned that my four-year-old was hearing answers from adults that highlighted the deficits of Jonathan and tolerance for his disabilities I was not surprised. Nor did I have any ill-will towards the adults who were trying to talk to the class about Jonathan’s differences. When I talked to my children about Jonathan I recognized three underlying misconceptions that needed to be addressed at the onset of our conversations.

  1. Disability is socially constructed. The impact of a disabling condition is context dependent. For example, a person who uses a wheelchair is not disabled if building that has ramps or elevators to accompany stairs, sensors or buttons that open doors, tables high and wide enough to roll a wheelchair under, ample space to maneuver their wheelchair through, around or under every area, and any additional necessary supports.
  2. In many cases, there is an identifiable cause for the disabling condition. This is true in the case of Down Syndrome. However, the identifiable causes, such as those caused by genetic differences are difficult to explain to children. We cannot unravel the biological concepts of cells, chromosomes, DNA and RNA and expect children to have a full grasp of the biology for Down Syndrome. But I believe we must be transparent and introduce the concepts.
  3. Last, but not least, the term disability inherently assumes an individual’s defined by their deficits. In using the term to describe a person, the user is talking about what the person with a variation of development cannot do, ultimately fog everything the person can do.

Contextualizing Solutions

After clarifying the three misconceptions I recognized with my children, I switched my focus on assets and commonalities rather than deficits and differences. But the methods of doing so is challenging given the fact that I, personally have been socialized to devalue and dehumanize people with disability, blind to assets and commonalities. I approached the conversation in the typical ways I discussed conversations about justice, equity, and identity. I based my discussion on something they were familiar with.

  1. At the time, and still today, my children love the show Wild Kratts. One of the central aspects of the education of the show is teaching about the unique “creature powers” of animals have. I used this as the initiation for talking about human abilities and the creature powers that make us unique. These are assets.
  2. Extending from on Wild Kratts, I identified all of the human creature powers they shared with Jonathan. My goal was to humanize him and other children who are disabled. I knew I had to approach this idea with caution. The intent is to humanize, but when we use animals as the central point of a metaphorical lesson, humanity can get lost. I used the term creature powers, but I steered clear from any creature other than humans.
  3. I talked about the unique creature powers Jonathan had that made him unique. Jonathan is a child who is very caring for others. He has the power of recognizing other people’s emotions, providing unconditional support. Jonathan is a friend who always fills buckets and never bucket dips. That is a very unusual trait among children at school.
  4. Some of the creature powers we/they have developed grow slower for Jonathan, but that’s what helps him get stronger friendship creature powers.  

Time has Passed and I’m Still Processing

Jonathan is in another class now. When I hear about him, the stories are usually quick comments about interactions on the playground. We have not had a conversation referencing Down Syndrome for nearly a year. But conversations about disability haven’t stopped.

My daughters continue to love watching Wild Kratts so the conversation about creature powers is ongoing. They recognize the lack of diversity, including the exclusion of children with disabilities. However, they don’t necessarily see the problem with that.

I continued to clarify the answers to questions my daughters bring home from school. I reinforce the original ideas I shared with them last year. In addition to books with characters who are disabled, we also extend the conversations into books about diverse family structures, bullying, and loving yourself for who you are. There is often overlap because those books include children who have visible disabilities.

When the opportunity arises, we talk about how everybody’s human creature powers are similar with a few minor differences…that sometimes seem to be major because of the situation and expectations of a normal person. I try to emphasize the similarities and point out how the differences provide opportunities for all of us to strengthen our own creature powers through working and learning together.

When I/we talk about people who are disabled, they are constructing their own understanding of what disability means. Chances are that that message is deficit-based. I’m certain that things I have said to my children still highlight deficits in some way or another. I am not perfect, but I try to respond in a way that humanizes rather than dehumanizes. If we truly want to value the lives of all people, I encourage you to do the same. #OurChildrenAreListening