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November 8, 2002

Children and Differences

From: Rochester R News, NY
Nov. 8, 2002

by Virginia Butler

"I find that a high percentage of moms and dads are willing to pull their kids away and make sure their kids are hidden from view as I walk by."
-Jim Passe Disabled Magician

"MOMMY, LOOK AT HIM!" Ask any handicapped person about children's reactions and most will tell you it's not the kids, but the parents who have the problem. And many parents unknowingly pass their fear and ignorance of the disabled on to their children. By nature, most children are helpful. Teachers often tell of classmates who go out of their way to help a disabled child in school, with no stigmatism at all. Left to themselves, a disabled child and an able-bodied child will discuss the differences in a matter-of-fact tone.

"STOP STARING!" Those are the words more parents use when their child encounters a handicapped person. The words and the sharpness of the tone connote a fear in children, as if there's something dangerous about the handicapped. Some children may develop the misunderstanding that people in wheelchairs have contagious diseases. The first way to sensitize your children is to stop overreacting and understand a child's curiosity is natural.

EDUCATE The first thing children will notice is the equipment that accompanies a handicapped person. Be prepared to explain it and its usefulness. Tell the child in calm tones what a wheelchair is or how crutches work. A child should know someone with a white cane is blind and why blind people have seeing-eye dogs. Everything from hearing aids to body casts may bring up a question. These questions should not be discouraged. They should be answered.

TEACH RESPECT These lessons should be conveyed with a sense of respect for the people's skill despite their handicap, not pity. Point out how agile a person in a wheelchair is when moving around in a crowd of people, or how much skill a blind person must have in order to cross a street.

CONNECT The most common questions will involve the handicap itself. Parents are often embarrassed when a child asks, in full voice, "Mommy, what happened to that man's legs?" Instead of being embarrassed, encourage the child to ask the handicapped person, if he or she seems open to conversation. Most disabled people have come to terms with their disability and are happy to explain it to a child. It's certainly more comfortable than being treated like an outcast who should be feared.

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