Mandy and her son, Wyatt, during a day spent volunteering with RSVP's disability volunteer group at Eagle Marsh.
When parents find out they are expecting, so much time and energy go into preparation for the birth of the baby – the nursery, baby showers, name research, and so much more. When I found out I was expecting my first son in 2014, while I contemplated the nursery color and read through the book of 10,000 names, I also spent quite a bit of time thinking about how I would raise my children with inclusive values. I desired to raise kind, respectful, understanding, and empathetic children. I wanted my son to recognize each person for who they are, and the value they bring individually instead of developing assumptions and stereotypes impressed upon by society.
Our quest to live inclusive lives hasn’t been perfect, but here are some of the ways I’ve worked as a mom to foster a spirit of inclusivity in my own children.
Let them ask the questions.
Children are naturally curious and have lots of questions (I’m sure I field at least 100 questions each day from my boys). When they ask questions like, “why is Billy in a wheelchair” or “why does Sally talk differently,” do not shy away from the question. There are a few options for how you can address these questions. If you do not know the answer to the question, it’s okay to say, “I’m not sure, let’s see if they would talk with us about it” or, “I’m not sure, let’s read more about their disability to understand why they speak differently.”
In your response, it’s important not to deter them from asking questions and to respond in a matter-of-fact tone. Amy Morin, LCSW, psychotherapist and the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind, recommends the following key points when speaking about disability:
– Some people are born with disabilities.
– People with disabilities are not sick.
– There’s nothing wrong with people with disabilities.
Teach through experiences.
Be intentional about providing children with experiences that incorporate diverse perspectives, race, gender, and ability. While children can learn through conversations and research, they need to experience people who are different from them. Find activities to participate in with your children like volunteering at an organization that serves people with disabilities or attending disability-centered events (like our Disabilities Expo or a Turnstone sports exhibition).
My sons came with me to work from time to time while at GiGi’s Playhouse and learned so much about children and adults with Down syndrome. As my boys learned more about the characteristics of people with Down syndrome, they felt more comfortable with differences.
Be mindful of language.
As Judy Heumann shared during her presentation at the ADA Amplified Symposium, do not shy away from the word “disability.” Children need to recognize that disability is a normal part of life and avoiding the word can make it seem as if the word is negative. Ask people which identifying term they prefer. Each person differs in how they want to discuss their disability, and our children need to know it can change based on the person. When in doubt, use “disabled people” or “people with disabilities.”
One of my favorite ways of teaching my children is through stories and books. Here are a few book recommendations to help children learn more about disabilities:
My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Elizabeth Peete
Different is a Great Thing to Be by Heather Avis
Just Ask!: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You by Sonia Sotomayor
These are just a few of the ways to inspire inclusivity in our children. I firmly believe that building a more inclusive future and community start in our own homes.