(Please note: This post was written before I knew about author/activist Emily Ladau’s incredible book Demystifying Disability. The similar post title is a complete coincidence. I highly recommend reading her book and following her on social media!)
A few weeks ago, a college friend reached out to me on Facebook with the sweetest message. She wanted to know if I had any recommendations for how she and her young children should best engage with kids with disabilities in a way that is respectful and supportive.
First of all, I’d just like to thank this friend, and others who have asked me similar questions. Seriously, though, the fact that parents want their children to know about and celebrate differences is absolutely reassuring to me, as I prepare to send JB off to preschool next month. It gives me hope that kids are becoming more accepting of and comfortable with people not exactly like them.
As for what to say when meeting someone with a disability, (child or adult), I’m quickly learning everyone is different at what they appreciate or don’t appreciate. But so far, I’ve been amazed by how well my friends and their kids have come to accept and embrace JB!
It’s funny, but there are two different – and totally appropriate – reactions kids typically have to learning about JB, whether it’s his wheelchair, his feeding tube, his hand and head movements, or his lack of talking:
- The kid shrugs and says “Oh,” and moves on to another topic or walks away.
- The kid says, “Oh,” and then asks an amazing follow-up question like “Does he drink Magic Formula like Boss Baby?” (In case you were wondering this same question: Yes, JB gets formula, and I guess it’s kind of magic in the fact that it gives him all of his nutrition. No, he doesn’t drink it.)
I find my friends and I have the best luck explaining it in the terms of showing what’s different between the children but what also is the same. So if the child asks why JB doesn’t walk, we answer, “His legs aren’t strong enough yet to walk like you do, but he has this cool chair that helps him get around. Isn’t it cool how many ways there are to move and explore?”
Or if they point to JB’s feeding tube, we’ll say, “That’s how he gets his food in his belly. It’s like how you’re eating your sandwich by mouth and it goes into your stomach. Isn’t it amazing how many ways there are to eat?”
This way they see what’s different but also what they have in common.
The main thing is to explain there’s nothing to be afraid of – kids with disabilities are still just that – KIDS. They enjoy dinosaurs, Disney movies, hockey, stickers, iPads and other things just like other children.
I promised my friend I’d compile a list of some of my favorite children’s picture books that explain disabilities in easy, approachable language. I also thought I’d share this list on the blog, as it is holiday shopping season and people are looking for great gift ideas. Enjoy!
- Daniel’s New Friend by Becky Friedman: This story recaps the Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood episode of the same name. It introduces Chrissie, a new character who uses leg braces and crutches. I love this book and TV episode because they show Daniel and his friends showing curiosity in their friend’s equipment, then moving on to get back to playing. They don’t completely ignore the difference, but rather it’s acknowledged, and then accepted. (Side note: This story is also included in the collection Daniel Tiger’s 5 Minute Stories.)
- Just Ask! by Sonia Sotomayor: “Why would a Supreme Court Justice write about kids with disabilities?” I know that was my first thought when I heard about this book. It turns out that Justice Sotomayor had diabetes starting at a young age, but her classmates never asked her questions about it. She wanted children to know that curiosity and questions are good, and that disabilities and chronic health issues can be respected and talked about. There are a variety of disabilities and differences mentioned in this book, such as asthma, blindness, deafness, autism, food allergies and dyslexia. Also, the illustrations are incredibly beautiful.
- We’re All Wonders by R.J. Palacio: This book is a spinoff of the New York Times Bestseller Wonder. It follows Auggie, a young boy with facial differences, and his dog, Daisy, as they go on adventures. The message of the entire Wonder collection is to “Choose Kind”, and frankly we could all use that reminder. If you want to hear a sample of We’re All Wonders, check out this video of Luis from Sesame Street reading it aloud.
- We’re Different, We’re the Same and We’re Wonderful by Bobbi Jane Kates: This Sesame Street book first published in 1992 discusses differences of all kinds, without ever using words like nationality, race, gender, religion or disability. Are the illustrations a little dated and cheesy? Yup, but that’s part of its charm!
I’d love to hear your favorite books for helping explain differences – whether disabilities, gender, religion, race, etc. – to children. Feel free to share your recommendations!
Please note: These opinions are all entirely my own, and I have not been compensated to review any of these books. That being said, there are Bookshop.org affiliate links in the above post.