TALKING TO YOUR KIDS ABOUT DISABILITY

I’m no stranger to doing it, but having to explain my disability to complete strangers is something I struggled with for a long time. Intriguingly, speaking to children about my disability has never really been an issue, but something has always irritated me when adults ask questions. In my experience there is often a lack of common sense and respect.

It’s been a learning experience for me just as much as it has been for those curious individuals I’ve encountered over the years. My own maturity and self-awareness have directly impacted some of the answers I’ve given people. And I’m embarrassed to admit that on numerous occasions I’ve been very abrupt in my responses.

I appreciate that most of the time adults try to be respectful with their words, however it’s often their body language I find most disconcerting. Adults in particular often appear awkward and uneasy when asking me questions about my disability. Or, they simply don’t ask, and instead there is an awkward lingering silence. I can’t control any of that, all I can do is make people feel at ease, by respectfully responding and showing them that disability isn’t something to fear.

As a mother I want my children to grow up eager to learn and discover difference, not just the differences they see in people, but the differences they see in art, science, sport and technology. This will only happen if I lead by example, showing them through my own actions and behaviours that differences are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ they simply just are what they are.

I want to teach all children that disability is not something to be afraid of, but rather something augmenting. Disability is a difference that is inherently complex but absolutely worth learning about.    

So what do you do if you’re a parent wanting to introduce disability to your children?

Pulling your child away or telling them to “shh” when they make a statement out loud about someone with a disability isn’t a great response. Instead it reinforces the idea that disability is a taboo subject. So, here are some ideas to keep in mind when introducing disability to your children.

DO: Talk to your children about disability (if they ask).

Children are naturally inquisitive, and if they see a person with a disability they are going to be curious, that’s a good thing. If they ask a question, take the time to answer as openly and as honestly as possible. You don’t need to explain why a person might look different you just need to acknowledge that they do. For example, if your child asks, “Why is that person in a wheelchair” or “Why does that person only have one arm” – it’s OK to say that you don’t know. In fact making assumptions is usually worse.

DON’T: Make a big deal about it.

Children undoubtedly notice disability, but typically don’t see the disability as a defining feature of a person in the way that many adults do.
Sometimes sitting your child down to have a discussion about disability can in fact make disability seem even more scary. If you feel that you need to talk to your child about disability before they approach you, try to make it part of everyday conversation.

DO: Encourage your children to ASK if someone needs help

As a mother I hope to raise empathetic and compassionate children, but there is a distinct difference between encouraging our children to be helpful, and encouraging them to force that help onto someone who might appear to need it more, simply because they have a disability.
We want to empower our children to be respectful of others, the best way to teach is to encourage them to always ask if someone needs help — and most importantly to respect the answer. We don’t want children to feel obligated to help others simply because they have a disability. Again, this sends a message that people with a disability are in some way less able than they are, and that is simply not true. We don’t want to establish a sense of power, because help is something that we all need from time to time, regardless of whether we have a disability or not.

DO: Talk about aids such as wheelchairs and artificial limbs.

When a child first sees a wheelchair or any other object that assists a disabled person in their day-to-day life, it might seem unusual and even scary. Simply explain to your child that the device helps the person to walk, see, hear etc.

DO: Focus on what a person CAN do rather than what they can’t

Often when we see a person with a disability we assume that their life is difficult, and we think of all the things that they can’t do or things that they might struggle with. Instead, lets focus on what people CAN do. A great way to do this is through watching athletes with a disability play various sports. Sports such as swimming, athletics, wheelchair tennis and wheelchair basketball. There are also some incredible artists and scientists with a disability. Make a conscious effort to learn more about their work.


Most importantly, allow yourself to be enthusiastic and positively curious about differences you see every day, because doing this will encourage your children to be excited about ability rather than fearful of disability.

Listen to the full Mamamia Podcast here!
 

FEARS OF A NEW MOTHER

Throughout my life my disability has never really been an “obstacle” as such. And up until very recently I never feared any situation or experience. I’ve always been able to find my own way of doing things, like tying my shoelaces, doing my hair, painting my nails and driving a car.

Of course, growing up in a family dominated by boys no doubt helped me to develop an enormous amount of resilience! My three younger brothers taught me how to climb trees, and always included me in games of cricket and soccer... although now that I think about it, I was always the goal keeper!

My life has been, quite simply, amazing. I often talk about how enriched my life has been BECAUSE of my disability, not in spite of it.

I’m now pregnant with my second child and when I discovered that I was pregnant, I was completely over the moon - mainly because I had suffered an eating disorder for many years and although I never spoke about it with anyone, I always had a lingering fear that perhaps the damage I had done to my body internally would be irreversible. But thankfully I’ve now been able to fall pregnant naturally, twice.

I remember worrying that body image issues would be what I struggled with the most during my first pregnancy. Negative body image is something that we can all relate to and something that we all experience at different stages in life, with periods of transition such as puberty, pregnancy and menopause being times when women are more likely to feel uncomfortable with the changes that their bodies are going through.

But surprisingly, body image issues weren’t really as big a concern as I thought they would be throughout my first pregnancy. I have tried to embrace every change that my body goes through with each pregnancy and I’ve become so much more appreciative of the female body. That’s not to say that I haven’t been extremely uncomfortable, exhausted and annoyed that my clothes don’t fit. Of course all of those things aren’t fun experiences, but I guess I’m more focused on making sure that my body is the most nurturing place it can be as it houses my unborn baby - so the discomfort isn’t an issue.

What I have found to be more challenging is my disability. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve feared the unknown, and feared what I may not be able to achieve.

Now, I’ll never say that I can’t do anything - because there isn’t anything I can’t do (besides drive a manual car) but since becoming a mother there are some tasks that I’ve realised are not so easy.

I remember during my first pregnancy walking into a baby shop looking for prams. Any first time mum will tell you just how overwhelming those shopping trips can be. I had no idea there were so many prams?! Seriously. Don’t even get me started with car seats!

But that particular day wasn’t fun at all. For the first time in years, a debilitating sense of doubt and guilt washed over me as I struggled to figure out how I would physically manage assembling a pram.

There are so many buttons and contraptions - I had no idea where to start. And most of the prams were bulky and heavy. I stood discretely watching as other mums assembled various prams with total ease.

I’d done my research so I knew which pram I wanted, but I hadn’t given any thought to how I would actually be able to use it. 

I heard one staff member say, ‘make sure you use both hands at all times’.

It dawned on me that up until now any task I attempted that was at first difficult because I only had one hand, didn’t impact anyone else. So over the years I’ve dropped things and smashed things, but it never mattered because I’d just keep practicing until I got it right, and no other person was ever involved - but now, the realisation that I was responsible for another life became so real that it was terrifying.

What would happen in situations where I was holding my baby and at the same time needed to put the pram together, how would I do it?

All of a sudden I became flustered and tears started to well in my eyes.

It was the first time my husband had ever seen me like that and it also dawned on him, that now more than ever I was going to really need his support.

I just wanted to get out of the shop as quick as I could - I didn’t want any other woman to see that I was getting emotional, because the last thing I wanted was for others to look at me and feel sorry for me. Those who know me well, would tell you that sympathy and pity are not things I ever ask for.

My husband is an incredible guy, and not once has he ever seen my disability as a hindrance or something to be pitied. He’s practical, and he simply told me, that when I feel up to it, we would go back to the shop and practice putting the pram together until I felt comfortable. After that it was a fairly quiet car ride home.

Of course hormones were playing their part, but all I could think was that I wasn’t going to be a good mother. I started to run through a list of motherly tasks in my head and when we got home I went straight into the bathroom and just burst into tears.

How was I going to bathe my baby?

Thinking about it just broke my heart... because I knew that I’d eventually figure out the pram thing, but bathing my baby... how was I going to hold her tiny, slippery body in water and wash her at the same time?

I quietly sobbed... and sobbed.

I had lost all sense of self-confidence, and was overcome with sheer terror and sadness.

My daughter is now 22 months old and I can positively say that together, as mother and daughter, we have found our own way of doing things. At first it was daunting, but like all first time mums we learn as we go.

I’m still learning to embrace this next chapter of motherhood, and allow myself to not be perfect, but feel content knowing that I will always do the very best that I can when it comes to my daughter and future children.

Where there’s a will - there’s a way. And trust me, my will to ensure that my children are loved and safe all of the time, means that I will always find a way to do things that might at first seem a struggle.

Sure, there will be many times in the future when I am confronted with new tasks... for example plaiting my daughter’s hair for school, but I will always find my own way to manage - just like I have in the past.

My newest fear now as a mother, is trying to figure out how l will manage with two babies! Physically I know I’ll be OK, but emotionally and mentally I, like so many other woman, will need to rely on other mums for moral support.

To all the new and expecting mothers out there, be kind to yourself and be patient. From the moment your baby is born, life changes forever. No matter how challenging it is, no matter what obstacles you are faced with, you will always be that child’s mother. Embrace this new chapter.

xx