Growing up, I heard a lot of kids ask their parents what was wrong with me, only to hear the parent respond “She’s sick.” I don’t overhear these exchanges nearly as much anymore. I don’t think it’s because the world has become more aware. I just think it’s easier to understand someone who is (masquerading as) an adult using a wheelchair than it is a kid.
Hearing a parent tell a kid I was sick bothered me, even when I didn’t understand why it bothered me. I wasn’t sick. If I was sick, I wouldn’t have been out; I would have been at home, on the couch, watching TV. I know now that it was just a parent’s fall-back answer to an awkward question, and an end to an awkward conversation they didn’t want to have.
Understanding it doesn’t make me feel any better about it.
It’s the same sort of feeling I get when a stranger tells me their experience with wheelchair users and it always ends up with someone dying. Do I look that bad? I felt pretty healthy until you started talking to me.
I advocate parents letting their children ask questions of people they see with disabilities. Trust me, we are much less likely to be offended by a question coming from a cute kid than from their less-than-cute parents.
It’s pretty clear that most behaviors are learned. Kids don’t see me as “different” until their parents point it out. They don’t learn to be weirded out by my presence until their parents yank them away. Kids don’t see curiosity as taboo until their parents shush them.
I don’t deny that kids are big perpetrators of staring and pointing, but, sadly, many adults are just as bad. Perhaps if we started out educating children properly, we wouldn’t have to worry about the proliferation of rude adults.
Guidelines for teaching kids about disabilities
It’s rude to stare. It’s rude to whisper. It’s rude to point.
It’s okay to ask questions, as long as you do it nicely.
Don’t say, “What’s wrong with you?”
People with disabilities are just like you, and like the same things you do.
Don’t tell kids people with disabilities are “sick”. They may or may not be. They’ll tell you if it is so.
Let the person explain their disability. Each one is different, and the common assumptions may not apply.
Don’t assume that someone with a disability isn’t as smart as you are. A physical difference does not necessarily affect the brain.
No matter what, treat people the way you want to be treated.