How to talk to your child about disability?

A family photo from 2019 - we're all out near our home in Oxford. Baby Viola is asleep in Lucy's lap, and Lucy is sitting in her wheelchair. Mainie (age 5) is standing to the side, gesticulating (shrugging?) and smiling at the camera. I've just realised you can't actually see that James has one leg.  (You think an entire missing limb would show up more frequently on photos to be quite honest.) Viola and Mainie are wearing matching bonnets - which are a triumph IMO. We're all white with varying shades of brown hair.

How to talk to your child about disability? We’re asked this pretty frequently, so thought we’d post this extract from an Q&A James did recently, about this & his upcoming book – What Happened to You?

Q. Children sometimes ask questions that could upset a child with a disability. Do you have any advice for parents of disabled children about how they can comfort their children & empower them in the case of an upsetting or uninvited question? 

A. The first thing I’d say is that, uninhibited as children are, there are actually plenty of adults who are perfectly prepared to ask WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU? at the bus stop, or in the post office queue. For some disabled people, it’s a daily gauntlet whenever they leave the house. Disabled children will end up developing strategies to cope with this, which they will keep on using into adulthood, & there’s no simple answer, no one perfect response. Kids have to work out what they feel comfortable saying. But parents can empower them by making it clear they’re not obliged to explain themselves. Disabled children need to know they should have the same expectations of privacy as any child, & that it’s the question that is impolite, not any reluctance they might feel to answer it. 

Q. And how can parents of non-disabled children discuss this with their children to encourage them to put their disabled friend’s feelings above their curiosity? 

A. Parents sometimes ask me this in the playground, usually soon after their child has yelled YOU’VE ONLY GOT ONE LEG at the top of their voice!

I think the only solution is empathy. Well, maybe a quick lesson in manners first: now, we don’t shout at/harass/harangue/pursue/interrogate/grope (yes, seriously!) people we don’t know, do we?

But then the way to make it stick is to say: imagine you had one leg or used a wheelchair. Wouldn’t you get bored of being treated that way? I was actually a teenager before I realised that my best friend of years and years, unlike countless other children and adults I’d met in passing, had never once asked me…

James Catchpole

From a longer Q&A with Children’s Salon, and posted on Instagram on the 26th of February 2021

What Happened To You is out now with Faber & Faber – you can order it here with international delivery included.

[Image descriptions:

Image 1: A family photo from 2019 – we’re all out near our home in Oxford. Baby Viola is asleep in Lucy’s lap, and Lucy is sitting in her wheelchair. Mainie (age 5) is standing to the side, gesticulating (shrugging?) and smiling at the camera. Viola and Mainie are wearing matching bonnets – which are a triumph IMO. We’re all white with varying shades of brown hair.

Image 2: James and the girls, holding his book – they’re all wearing hats. Viola looks unbothered.

Image 3: The cover of James’s book – What Happened To You? – a children’s picture book showing a rather gorgeous one-legged boy winking at the viewer. He’s a white child with blondish hair and is not wearing a prosthetic leg. It’s written by James Catchpole and illustrated by Karen George.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s