Normalising Difference: Discussing Disabilities is not Taboo

Normalising Difference - An Everyday Story

‘Mummy that boy’s head moves a lot. Look. There he’s walking and his head is moving.’

‘Shhh. We don’t say things like that.’

…’Oh, I’m so sorry.’

Please don’t ever apologise to us. Please don’t ever feel embarrassed by your child’s observation. Just like that tiny bug crawling across a leaf, or the plane leaving white stripes in the sky, your child wants to show you something interesting.

We aren’t offended. We know that Jack has a disability. We know that he walks differently to some children. But it’s just different, not worse, or abnormal, just different.

Difference is all around us; in fact from what I know of nature, no two things are exactly alike. But when we shush a child, when we feel embarrassed by what they have said or done, what we are saying, whether consciously or not, is that your particular difference is something you should be sensitive to, something that we can’t talk about because you’ll be offended in some way and thereby making your difference, your disability something that is in fact abnormal.

And it is not abnormal. It is just different.

Every time a child is told that they aren’t supposed to notice a person’s differences, they place that person on the outer. This is how bullying starts.Β For the fact that you walk differently to me is more profound to the fact that I have brown hair and you have red. We accept a comment about differences in hair colour, or differences in height, ‘Yes, he is a lot taller than you.’, maybe because we all have these same differences, so why not the other differences too?

Why is an observation about a disability or more profound physical difference so taboo? Why do we become embarrassed when our child notices that that man is missing a limb, or that woman has a large birthmark on their face? Or that boy moves his head when he walks? Is it because we assume that they too are sensitive to their difference and so we don’t want to draw their attention back to it?

Well I can tell you that at least in our case, and in all the other cases of perfectly normal people with perfectly normal differences that we have known, we are just fine, more than fine, with who we are. So please, don’t feel embarrassed and don’t quieten your child.

Have a conversation just like you would any other time. Acknowledge their observation, answer any questions they might have practically and honestly; normalise difference.

Just this week Jack and I had a similar conversation on the bus. A person in a wheelchair got on the bus the stop after we did. We were sitting in the seats allocated for people with disabilities and so moved seats to make room for this man.

‘But why do we have to move Mummy?’

‘There is a person coming on the bus who has a wheelchair and they need this space.’

‘But why do they need this chair?’

‘These chairs move up so the person can fit their wheelchair.’

‘Why does he have a wheelchair?’

‘Wheelchairs help people who can’t walk to move around.’

‘Yeah. Maybe he can’t walk.’

‘Yeah. You’re probably right.’

We hopped up and moved and that was the end of it. Just a normal respectful conversation. Nothing to be embarrassed about.

So next time your child comments on another person’s differences, please don’t feel embarrassed. Acknowledge your child’s observation and move on; normalise difference.

Imagine what a profound change we could make to this world if all children were brought up believing that all people are different and that no matter how great those differences, that it really is no big deal; not something to be embarrassed about, not something we don’t discuss, not something to be pitied or avoided, just normal; perfectly normal difference.

20 Replies to “Normalising Difference: Discussing Disabilities is not Taboo”

  1. Thanks for the great post Kate. I definitely agree that difference is nothing to shy away from – we are all different to be sure. I think the way we handle the questions of children, with understanding eyes and ears upon us, is relatively easy. But when we are worried about what others are thinking (because of what our child has says and someone’s verbal or non verbal reaction), this is where the embarrassment can creep in. I love hearing your perspective though and do hope we can move towards a world where everyone is embraced.

  2. Actually I havent thought like that before. It is really nice post.
    Thanks a lot!

  3. This is always what I practice with my daughter. However, there are still persons with disabilities or differences who will shoot a dirty look at a child for their natural curiosities. I suppose sometimes they’ve already been affected by bullying or prejudice for too long. πŸ™

  4. I never felt embarrassed when my kids would talk to me about others disabilities…it was only when they did so when the person with the disability would hear them

  5. My son has autism. Kids often notice and ask why he does not play with them, why he doesn’t talk or why he makes certain noises. Aside from the adults overreacting it has never been a big deal. I really wish they would just let me answer their child’s questions. Or, at least temper their intervention to a gentle “they may to want to answer all those questions.” which leaves me the option to either answer or walk away. Not everyone wants to discuss their differences but I WANT to answer their questions. I want my son to hear its not a big deal. I want other kids to understand and not be afraid to ask questions. Those are the kids that end up being the most compassionate, loving and accepting of my little guy.

  6. Well said, Kate! We are close friends with a family who have a boy who is autistic. I used to work closely with him when he was younger. He has mannerisms people who deal with autism are familiar with, but to some, he has been perceived as a nuisance. My Otto (4yrs old now) has asked questions before, but now it’s quite normal the way our friend acts. It’s cute- when we hear our friend being “vocal” in the quiet church, Otto whispers to me, “(our friend’s name) is here today!”
    You’re right – answering questions rather than burying them in embarrassment normalizes the differences.

  7. Thank you so much for this post Kate. I think as children so many of us were scolded and told that it’s rude to stare. Sometimes as adults we need to be reminded that it’s okay to be open and indeed celebrate each other’s differences so that we can pass that kind of mutual respect on to our children.

  8. We encountered this situation in regards to race the other day. A ‘new Australian’ with extraordinarily dark skin was working at the supermarket and my son was fascinated looking at him. He said “MUM look at his skin!!” The man averted his eyes and got self conscious, I replied to my son “I know it’s beautiful isn’t it!” the man smiled shyly as my son said “yes it’s very beautiful”…

  9. Thanks for this post. I am one of those parents who would feel sad that my son pointed out a difference, thinking it might offend the other person… now I know that I had the wrong approach.

    Thank you, sharing this on my FB page for my friends to read πŸ™‚

  10. Thank you for this post!

  11. So well articulated. Wonderful.

  12. This article deserves to go viral. I’ve shared it on Facebook. Such an important message and so well written. πŸ™‚

  13. Great post thank you – my son is going through a noticing skin colour period at the moment – reminded me not to panic when dealing with it !!! Love all your posts by the way – thanks from Jo in the uk

  14. Great post, and the principle can be applied to any “difference” we might notice, from the way people look, to how they dress, speak, or behave (including customs etc).

  15. My nephew has cerebral palsy and he grew very used to answering other children’s questions about his disability (most of the adults were too polite to ask!). He had a Selective Dorsal Rhizotomy last year, so now doesn’t get so many questions.

  16. Great post. I try to explain when my son makes observations about disability. The other day I had to explain that a man with dwarfism was an adult and not a child. Goblin was delighted to discover there were adults that he was taller than.
    I have a facial palsy and i find it rather refreshing when children come straight out and ask what’s wrong with my face. Their poor parents always look so mortified but I like that they have paid enough attention to me to notice and take an interest.

  17. So lovely to discover your blog. I came across it searching for art supplies/storage! I am off to ikea to get a little trolley! I just saw two beautiful kids on your pages and was very interested to learn that Jack has CP. When I read the genius quote I thought of my son who also has CP. I really enjoyed reading this post and I agree wholeheartedly. I am happy to answer any questions and the only requirement my son has is to say hello first and ask his name before you plunge into life details! I always say to him, it’s better that people ask, question and look as they are seeing you ( maybe disability first but overtime see the child) and it’s better than ignoring you xxx Bron

  18. Beautiful post- well said! Two of my daughters are deaf, and I feel for people when they become aware of this and don’t quite know what to say… I have been that person in the past with others, fumbling uncomfortably for the “right” words- now I am on the other side of the story, so to speak, I have a new understanding of differences, and how they only seem to define a person at first glance… get to know them and you realise that their difference is just one facet of who they are, and we are all unique… Thank you for sharing this.

  19. Hi Kate,

    Love this! It was something I couldn’t understand until I became the mum of a boy who was particularly “different”. My perspective has totally shifted and I really try to intervene and answer questions of kids who are curious. To begin with it was hard and confronting and sometimes all I wanted to do was run… but it gets easier and easier, and once you’ve had the discussion the kids seem so genuinely interested and really keen to embrace those differences.

    Thanks for a wonderful post!

  20. farahfutom says:

    I stumbled upon your blog on Pinterest and love your posts!
    Thank you so much for sharing and I hope to be raising children with curious minds to continue being curious yet very respectful and open to differences, new things and experiences.

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