Monday, September 10, 2012

What to Say?

When I was growing up, my brother and I didn't see people with missing limbs or prostheses.  We didn't see kids with crutches or kids in wheelchairs.  Consequently, every kid I knew was scared of disabled people.  If we saw a man with a prosthetic arm, he was going to come and get us in our sleep, or something completely ridiculous.  Now that I am an adult, I notice people with disabilities all the time, just because of my job.  I am sure that I stared and pointed and did horrible things like that when I was a kid, but I certainly try to make up for that now. 

This is a military town, and there are quite a few veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who live around us.  We see them at the grocery store, at restaurants, and movie theaters. My son is starting to notice people who have eye patches, people who have prosthetic limbs, and people who have been disfigured in some way.  Children expect people to have a uniformity about their appearance, because that is what they are taught. Two arms and two legs. Two eyes and two ears.  Not everyone who is disabled was in the wars, but those brave men and women who were injured are here and they are our now, front and center.

He's starting to ask questions.  Why doesn't that man have any legs?  Where is that man's arm? What is wrong with his face?  These are legitimate questions for a kid to ask, and I don't ever want my child to stop asking questions.  Zane hasn't had the experience of being around individuals who don't have all of their appendages, or who are missing an eye, or who have been burned.  He doesn't understand.  He wants to know what happened and why, and he is not a child who speaks quietly or who can be 'shushed'. When he asks a question, he wants an answer.
Larry tries to water his words down, as a kindness.  He'll say that the man without legs was in an accident and that he was hurt.  That doesn't seem to mean anything to Zane.  He reasons that if one is hurt, one can get better; what is in front of him at the store does not appear to be 'better'.  I tend to just be blunt, and say that the man without legs stepped on a bomb and 'got boomed up'.   'Boomed up' is a phrase that Zane came up on his own while watching his father play video games. It's a phrase that he understands, but is vague enough not to cause nightmares.  In our way, we are both trying to help, but we probably fall short of the mark.

What I know for sure is that I don't ever want him to be scared of a disabled person just because of how they look. I would like for my son to be sensitive to others' feelings, of course, but what I would really like is for Zane to just treat a disabled person with respect. No fear, no ignoring, no bullying.  I want my son to look everyone in the eye and smile when he speaks to them.  I would rather Zane ignore the disability and see the person, at least as much as possible.  I am just not sure how to teach him that, except by example.  I hope that I don't screw up.


  1. I think you are on the right track. Honestly, my kids are a bit older, and in some cases (when I know it's appropriate) I will tell them "why don't you ask them what happened."

    Most people with a disability want to be asked. Not stared at, not whispered about, they want eye contact and real questions. I know it's what I would want.

  2. Information is always better than avoidance and euphemism. Juli's right; people with disabilities would more often rather you confront the elephant in the room and be done with it. Then it's not bugging you anymore. My daughter has Downs, and I've reflected on this several times (feel free to ignore the link, just including it FYI):


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