I find the way children respond to my disability is the most interesting part of being in a wheelchair.
I’ve been permanently in a wheelchair for almost 10 years now, after 3 years of being partially able to walk. Even when I was a newly diagnosed grumpy teenager, I was always amused at the way children tried to make sense of seeing someone who moved about differently to them. It’s always cute when kids see you in public and stop dead in their tracks to have a good look.
The conversation with a child often goes a little something like this:
Them: ‘Why are you in that?’
Me: ‘Because my legs don’t work so I use this to move around’
Them: ‘Oh. Ok. Do you have any games on your phone?’
That is literally it. If it tends to move beyond that, I answer their questions as honestly as I can. I get creative. I compare my chair to R2D2. I show the different features. I get called a transformer. I become the coolest person they know. I roll with it (literally and figuratively).
Their curiosity is running wild and that needs to be encouraged, but we’re not always taught to question the world around us. So when they ask ‘why are you in that?’ the first thing I tend to do after answering them is to see their parent’s reactions.
Some look embarrassed, some awkwardly try to change the subject before apologising, and some embrace the curiosity.
A few weeks ago out of the blue my almost four-year-old cousin told her parents ‘Latifa can’t walk’. And that was it. She understood. It wasn’t a big deal. She never said it was a bad thing. It’s just the fact and it’s normal to her. Perhaps when she’s older she will try to make sense of the hows and whys, and I’ll answer them. But for now it’s simply an observation she made and that is a good thing.
If we don’t encourage our children to try to understand difference, we’re not getting anywhere. Our future leaders and decision-makers need to know that being different doesn’t mean someone is any less able or worthy of acceptance than them. We’ve seen enough of this and it’s not going to change if we don’t encourage them to embrace each other.
Kids make sense of situations better than we give them credit for. They understand pretty quickly that everyone has different needs and I have found that they’re often willing to cater to that.
So the next time your child sees someone with any kind of disability and they want to ask a few questions, don’t hold them back. Understanding someone else’s world is the first step to building bridges. Our world needs that.