How to Talk to Kids about Disabilities

Social worker Therese Scarpace, L.M.S.W., of Beaumont Hospitals' Pediatric Rehabilitation, interacts with hundreds of children who have "disabilities." She offers the following advice for teaching children how to understand and relate to those with disabilities.

If parents can teach their children a simple way of understanding disabilities, it will be easier for the youngsters to approach those in a wheelchair or with another obvious difference. Instead of "disability," Scarpace encourages parents to use the word "adapt."

"The key to using the word ‘adapt' when talking about a disability is to reinforce that everyone adapts every day," Scarpace says.

For instance, people adapt to cold weather by wearing coats and gloves. A sick child adapts to his illness by resting in bed and not playing as he usually does. There are many ways people adapt every day.

Similarly, people with weak legs or poor balance who need to move around adapt by using a wheelchair. Or people with poor hearing adapt by wearing a hearing aid.

"A child will understand that much better than trying to explain the disability and why the person is ‘different'," Scarpace says. "A person with a disability just adapts in a different way than putting on a coat or resting in bed.

"This positive approach instills that regardless of who we are, we all adapt in our lives, and that we're more alike than different."