(Shared with my son's permission.)
My 12 year old lives for opportunities to head to the store. Any type of store really, with the exception of any store that his dad likes. For as close as the two of them are, he's of the opinion that dad isn't into cool stuff. I get the impression this love of shops stems from a lengthy career of making hospitals a second home right from the start. He's autistic and lives for the geography of winding halls and the anticipation of what might possibly be around the corner. Add his bright apple green wheelchair with light-up front wheels and he has the freedom and autonomy to explore as he pleases.
I still get all that I need to get at the store while he gets to people watch and crack jokes with his mom. Waiting in the checkout line, I hear familiar words from a child I've never met who's standing in line with their parents. The child asks me, "What's wrong with him?'. Out of the mouths of babes. Most adults when I share this story think kids gravitate towards the light-up wheels but no, kids drive right to the larger questions.
I don't mind answering them, as I've been working with kids for years. I teach a lot on communicating broad topics in a more simplified fashion. Oddly I find it easier to talk to kids about this than I do adults as in many respects they should know better to some degree. The following is a culmination of many, many conversations I've had in checkout lines.
Me: What's got your attention luv?
Child: Why is he sitting in that? (Points to wheelchair.)
Me: His legs don't listen to him very well so the wheelchair helps him get around super fast. Do you like to run super fast?
Child: Uh huh. (Generally shows me how fast they run.)
Me: Wow! That is super fast! Well when my boy likes to go super fast, the wheelchair helps him kind of like running, so he can be fast just like you!
Child: (nods) And why does he talk like that?
Me: That's because he talks in a different language using his hands. Do you want to know how to say your name in sign language?
The kids love it when I teach them a generalized hand sign for their name. One thing I'm very used to all the while as this conversation goes on is a look of shame and embarrassment on the faces of parents. This as well as the fact that parents never participate or engage in this conversation which is something that worries me. I can understand the potential discomfort in these situations. I'm a rare bird as an advocate and science communicator, not every disabled person is willing to jump into a prepared four minute curriculum nor should they be expected to.
Schools provide a knowledgeable space for discussions on kindness and inclusion. I imagine that an evidence basis for kindness/inclusion curriculum could stand to be reviewed on new evidence as it comes about. By and large the overall goal tends to be ideally to create a safe space for teaching all students. When it comes to other school subjects, what is learned in school tends to be repeated or mirrored at home in the form of homework. I too was that kid asking my parents to help me with what I brought home from school that day. Parents mobilize acquired knowledge from school as they are some of kids greatest influences.
What we don't really have is opportunities for parents at home to connect with subjects like inclusion and kindness with their kids like they do at school. I can't account for the prior experiences of the parents of the kids I meet in the checkout line as to their exposure to the subject of disability. If we are to however expose our kids to the larger world and the people in it, sometimes that takes some learning on our part and being open to hearing about the experiences of others. Be open with your kids about perhaps needing to learn more about disabilities together. In the end it shouldn't be my job to stop my world and normalize the sight of a wheelchair for your kids, I'm just here at Walmart for some eggs.
Alden E. Habacon has a great method for considering discussions on diversity. "When it comes to safety, we know that children learn more over time: the short-term goal is to establish basic literacy; the medium-term goal is to practice safe behaviours; and the long-term goal is the ability to make decisions that result in their safety.""Talking about diversity is exactly the same:
- The short-term goal is to establish basic literacy about race, gender, disability, respect, empathy, etc.;
- The medium-term goal is to learn inclusive behaviours and language; and
- The long-term goal is using inclusive language and practicing inclusive behaviours. " (Source:http://www.aldenhabacon.com/13-tips-how-to-talk-to-children-about-diversity)