From stares to acceptance: The value of teaching kids how to be inclusive
Why it's important to help children understand and accept disability
“Why is she in a wheelchair?” is one of the most common phrases I hear when I’m out and about. Funnily enough, I’ve grown so accustomed to staying home these past few years that I almost forgot what it felt like to be the subject of someone’s curiosity. But as I start to dip my toe into the outside world again, strangers’ eyes become glued to the four wheels I sit on and the awkwardness all comes back to me.
At 32 years old, I’m no longer bothered by people’s opinions of me. I know my worth, as do my friends and family, whose opinions are the only ones that matter to me. Even so, it’s uncomfortable to be stared at. And it’s disheartening when a child is staring and their parent handles it improperly.
Too often I’ve seen parents scold their children to stop looking, or they hurry away from me so I’m out of their view. Although this has happened far more often than I care to admit, it has shown me the importance of educating others about how to be inclusive and accepting.
Setting a positive example
The other day, I was at my nephew’s lacrosse practice surrounded by children staring. As we were all leaving, I heard a little boy behind me ask his mom why I was in a wheelchair. She simply told him that it was how I got around. She reminded him that some people use their legs, others use canes or crutches, and some use wheelchairs. If I hadn’t just gotten my seat belt on, I would have hopped out and hugged her. She didn’t shy away from her son’s curiosity. She didn’t tell him to keep quiet. She gave him a simple answer that made sense to him.
I write about this topic often in my column because I think it’s important more people learn about inclusion and acceptance. I may look different because of my disability, but looking different isn’t an invitation for someone to stare.
Of course, being a child is different and acceptable. Their curiosity will eventually lead to understanding if we grown-ups handle it properly. After all, children learn by example. And if the example we’re setting is negative and not inclusive, what kind of message are we sending?
For almost six years, I’ve been an auntie to two nephews and a niece. In the early days of being their “titi,” I was so worried about what they would think of me. That’s because, for most of my life, I had a different experience with children — one where I felt like a gremlin in their eyes.
But as I’ve watched them grow up, they don’t seem nervous or curious around me. To them, I’m just Titi. They know I can’t walk. They know I’m in a wheelchair. They’ve asked my brother why, and he has gladly answered in basic terms. But above all else, they accept me for who I am.
Not all children will be able to grow up around someone who’s disabled. But if we remember to teach inclusion at a young age, we will then start to foster more understanding. And with more understanding, acceptance will soon follow.
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