Q:  At the playground my 4-year-old daughter pointed at a child in a wheelchair and asked loudly, “Why is he in that chair?” What could I have said that would have been sensitive to him?

A:  Kids are naturally curious and the sight of a child in a wheelchair can be fascinating to them—but it doesn’t have to make anyone feel awkward. You could say something like, “What a good question, and then approach the boy in the wheelchair and tell him that your daughter was wondering about his chair, and does he have time to tell you and your daughter about it?” You can expand on her question after you leave, giving your child some examples of ways people get support for their differences, like canes or hearing aides. 

When a child has a disability, or a learning or developmental delay, we all play a role in helping them feel accepted, loved, and comfortable in their environment.  As parents, we need to model positive—and empathetic—behavior.  For example, the next time you see someone in a wheelchair, say hello or smile.  Through your example, you can teach your children that we all have different abilities to be noticed and respected.

Here are some other ways to support families of children with disabilities:

• Don’t be afraid to ask questions and offer help.

• Be patient. Often kids with learning or developmental issues need extra time to answer questions or more room to physically maneuver around.

• Be inclusive if possible.  Typically, developing children can learn a great deal by playing with kids with physical or learning challenges—and vice versa.

• Observe a child’s strengths; don’t just focus on his or her special needs.

Most important, be honest with your kids.  Take the time to answer their questions rather than shushing them if you’re embarrassed. Over the years, I’ve learned that children tend to see each others’ similarities much more than their differences; it’s more often us adults who feel uncomfortable with people who seem different.

Nurse Rona is the host of Childhood Matters radio show, a nurse for 44 years, a temperament specialist, parent educator, and mother of four. To hear previous shows, go to www.childhoodmatters.org, and tune in Sundays 7-8AM on 98.1 KISSFM. She is also available to do individual temperament consultations and workshops.