Passionate About Des Moines
and the Moms Who Live Here

How to Interact With People With Disabilities

“Wow!” Collin’s voice rang out and was obviously heard by all the guests in the restaurant. “That guy has a robot leg!” My 5-year-old ran over to the gentleman with the robot prosthetic leg.

I blushed several shades of red and ran over to Collin. I took his hand to lead him away and apologized to the man he was mesmerized with. Before I could finish the apology, the kind man grinned at my son. “I sure do have a robot leg! You want to touch it?” I was appreciative of the gracious way he responded to my son and indulged his curiosity. 

Little did I know that 6 months later, my husband would become permanently disabled due to a spinal cord injury. Three years have passed since then, and now my husband frequently encounters curious kids and embarrassed parents. 

Today I want to share some ideas to help you and your kids interact thoughtfully with people like my husband. I picked his brain and reached out to my support group of women whose partners have physical disabilities.  

Here are 4 suggestions for helping kids interact with a person who has disabilities

But first, let me stop and offer a word to the mamas who don’t need my tips because they parent children who live with disabilities. I want you to know I see you. You are tired, feel alone and will stop at nothing to make a way for your child in this world. For what it’s worth, know that I’m in your corner. Your input is welcome here at the Des Moines Mom’s Blog.  If am missing any important suggestions in this post, I’d love to hear your comments.

Now, for the rest of my readers, let’s get to it!  

  1. Recognize that the best way to teach your children is through your example. If you feel awkward around people with disabilities, start there! A member of my support group said, “Model the behavior you want to encourage, just like in any other situation. If you normally are friendly and sociable with strangers, be friendly and sociable with disabled people. If you normally are more formal with strangers, don’t change that for someone in a (wheel) chair.”To that I would add, that if the person has an able-bodied companion with them in public, please don’t address the companion with questions that ought to be directed toward the person with the disability. Even if you doubt the person is able to verbally communicate, you should still speak directly to them. Should they have communication needs that require the companion’s assistance, they will jump in as needed.
  2. “Damage control” normally does more damage. Remember my story about my son and the man with the “robot leg”?  When I attempted damage control by running over to whisk Collin away and apologize for his curiosity, I didn’t improve the situation. I asked my support group about this and every lady who chimed in agreed that children RARELY offend their partners. One of them said, “A well meaning inquiry from a curious child feels better than gawking eyes and shaming parents.” Remember, there is a difference between your children asking the person a direct question and them asking you a question ABOUT them. I teach my children that if they want to ask ME a question about someone they see in public, they should to do so privately. But now I don’t hinder my kids from speaking directly to people with disabilities. The unfortunate truth is people with disabilities are used to being avoided or ignored in public. So keep in mind the friendliness of a child can actually be a blessing.
  3. Take your cues from the person with the disability. In the event that your child addresses a person who is truly uncomfortable with the interaction, chances are, you will pick up on that. Try not to make a bigger deal of the situation than you would in any other embarrassing situation with your kids! Offer a quick apology if warranted and move along.
  4. Touching adaptive equipment without permission is a no no. If there is one thing I would encourage parents to emphasize to their children in these situations, it is this. Another member of my support group shared that young kids are often attracted to her husband’s power chair. The joystick controller, similar to a video game is understandably appealing! But curious hands near equipment, especially power chairs can pose real safety risks. Your supervision of your kids is much appreciated in these moments! Remember to model this rule to your kids as well. My husband does not have to use his wheel chair in public all the time, but when he does, we are amazed by how many adults try to help him by pushing his wheelchair without warning. Please refrain from doing this, it is not helpful.

Has your kid interacted with community members with physical disabilities?  How did it go?

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4 Responses to How to Interact With People With Disabilities

  1. Kara Knaack
    Kara Knaack April 5, 2018 at 4:25 pm #

    Erika I super appreciate these tips! I know that I’ve handled it poorly before, so this is so helpful. Thank you!

    • Erika Stevenson April 5, 2018 at 9:00 pm #

      I so aporeciate your feedback, Kara!

  2. Renae Beebout April 12, 2018 at 9:00 pm #

    I was wearing my baby in a carrier while happily rolling along in my manual chair. A lady I’d never met walked up to me and said “you look to have your hands full”, before I could even begin to anticipate her next move she was trying to REMOVE my baby from his carrier!!! I had to tell her that if she didn’t back away I’d start screaming.

    • Erika Stevenson April 14, 2018 at 7:12 pm #

      What?!? On behalf of able-bodied people everywhere, allow me apologize to you. I can’t even wrap my mind around that one!

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