Talking to Children About Disabilities

Discuss disabilities with your child in simple terms, teaching fairness, inclusion and empathy.  Help them practice inclusion while setting a good example of supporting and advocating for differently-abled people yourself.

1 – Know why this is important

There are many ways in which someone might be considered ‘disabled,’ from the more obvious physical disabilities to developmental inhibition.  A lot of research has gone into how to teach and socialize disabled and non-disabled children in the same schools and classes (1), hopefully leading to more exposure for your child to their disabled peers.  Living with a disability can be isolating and frustrating for children (as well as adults), so raising children who can include and ease the stress of people with disabilities is very important.

2 – Teach them that it’s OK to notice differences

Children are very good at noticing and pointing out differences.  When they bring up what might be an uncomfortable or even inappropriate observation (to an adult), pounce on the teaching opportunity, knowing they’ve trusted you to guide them.  Acknowledge the differences they might have noticed in others with disabilities, and explain the difference in simple terms.  Thank them for bringing it up and for talking through it with you, then ask what questions they have.  You want to teach your child that they can come to you with anything important (promoting open dialog with your child is a primary goal of the Little-Known Heroes!).

3 – Teach fairness, equity and empathy

As a parent, it’s your job to teach them values of fairness and inclusion; being mindful of values like fairness play a huge role in whether children include disabled peers (2).  Humanize the person with the disability to your child, and, to the degree they can understand, try to help them empathize with how lonely having a disability might be.  Some disabilities are hard to detect (young children are at all sorts of developmental levels anyhow) (5), so teach your child to always be looking for people being left out and to try and include them.

Where possible, make friends for yourself and/or find playmates for your child that are differently-abled.  Expose your child to characters in fiction and nonfiction who are disabled, such as Dummy Hoy in the Little-Known Heroes.  Any effort to widen your child’s knowledge and expectations will not be wasted.

4 – Help your child practice inclusion

Once your child sees their disabled peers as just peers that need a little help and care, they still might need help learning how to include them.  Groups of children are most likely to be inclusive in their games when they choose games that their differently-abled peer is capable of doing (perhaps by requiring little motor skill) (2), so expose your child to play ideas that all their peers could join in. Encourage them to pull these options from their arsenal whenever they notice someone unable to join in otherwise.

5 – Set a good example for your child

One thing you can do to benefit children with disabilities is to advocate for inclusive classrooms; children are more likely to learn and practice empathy and inclusion if they know and regularly interact with disabled peers (5).  Research suggests these class styles can be beneficial to both disabled and non-disabled students both socially (4) and academically (3).  Whenever you come across a business or public building violating the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), ask about it and see to it that the world becomes more accessible (see guidelines on making facilities accessible here).


  1. Cavallaro, C. C., Haney, M., & Cabello, B. (1993). Developmentally appropriate strategies for promoting full participation in early childhood settings. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 13(3), 293-307.
  2. Diamond, K. E., & Hong, S. Y. (2010). Young children’s decisions to include peers with physical disabilities in play. Journal of Early Intervention, 32(3), 163-177.
  3. Rea, P. J., McLaughlin, V. L., & Walther-Thomas, C. (2002). Outcomes for students with learning disabilities in inclusive and pullout programs. Exceptional children, 68(2), 203-222.
  4. Vaughn, S., Elbaum, B. E., Schumm, J. S., & Hughes, M. T. (1998). Social outcomes for students with and without learning disabilities in inclusive classrooms. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 31(5), 428-436.
  5. Yu, S., Ostrosky, M. M., & Fowler, S. A. (2012). Measuring young children’s attitudes toward peers with disabilities: Highlights from the research. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 32(3), 132-142.

Resources: Dummy Hoy

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