How to Explain a Physical Disability to a Child

"Why does that person's chair have wheels on it?"
"Why is that person putting his cane forward all the time?"
"Why does that person only have one hand (or foot)?

When your child starts asking this kind of questions, they're usually ready to hear the answer.


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    Look for children's books that feature disabled children, and read them together with your child. This will help your child understand that disabled people are really not that different!
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    Use simple words. When your child spots a disabled person in the street, you need to answer right there and then. Say something like:
    • "It's hard for that girl to walk, so she uses the chair to move around better."
    • "He can't see very well, so he uses a cane to help him feel if he's going to bump into things."
    • "Some people are born with only one arm, and sometimes people have an accident and lose their arm. I don't know why she has one arm, but that's okay, because it doesn't really matter."
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    Speak in a casual tone of voice, and signal that the disability, while existing, is not a big deal. This helps normalize the idea of disabilities, so your child feels comfortable around disabled people.
    • Do not send your child to talk to the disabled person or ask him/her questions. While it may seem like a teachable moment to you, it quickly becomes an annoyance to disabled people, who have to deal with both stigma and random questions from strangers. It is very rude to assume that "she won't mind" when, in fact, she may actually be walking to a meeting or absorbed in deep thought.
    • If your child is old enough, you could teach them about stigma, the disability rights movement, and invisible disabilities (such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, autism, and schizophrenia).
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    Teach your child not to have pity on disabled people. Yes, they may have a little more trouble to go out and about, but they manage just like everyone else!
    • The same goes for admiration, which is really "pity in disguise."


  • Teach your child not to touch guide dogs (unless the disabled person gives permission). This distracts the dog and prevents it from doing its work. For example, say "If a dog is wearing that, that means it is working, and you shouldn't pet it because it will be distracted."
  • If you feel insecure or scared around disabled people, this attitude will transmit to your child. Conduct yourself with maturity.
  • Consider becoming a volunteer at a rehabilitation centre. When you spend more time around disabled people, you'll get to learn about all kinds of disabilities. In turn, you can teach these things to your child. Or, while you're at it: ask if it's OK to bring your child with you.


  • Do not pretend there's no one there when your child asks about a disabled person in the street. Not only is this confusing to your child, it's also demeaning to the person concerned. After all, you're ignoring them!
  • Do not punish your child for asking you a question! Asking questions (and lots of them!) is what children are supposed to do, and questions about disabilities aren't inappropriate.
  • Do not refer to a disabled person as sick, unless you're absolutely sure they are. Furthermore, it may confuse the child, who could assume that the person has a communicable illness and should be at home.

Article Info

Categories: Teaching Children Skills | Disability Issues