I was having a gripe session not too long ago with my friend Michelle recently. I was complaining about all the running around that I had to do to take my son from one social thing to another. (I live in a rural area and it can take 45 minutes, one way, to get to a friend’s house). After I stopped complaining, she looked at me and said, "I wouldn’t know, my kids don’ have any friends". I told her that of course they had they have friends, I’ve seen her at park play dates and meet ups, and she said, 'Yes, I bring them, but none of the other kids interact with them". After thinking about it, she was right. Her kids are younger than my teen, a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old, both who are disabled. One is in a wheelchair, the other mobile but not very active. I was surprised and sad. It led to a very raw conversation about how lonely her kids were. She told me that there are a lot of things she learned to be prepared for when her kids were diagnosed with disabilities, but one of the hardest one was learning how difficult it is for your child to make friends.
Kids with disabilities can have the hardest times with not being socially accepted. They are often not invited to play dates, parties, and birthday parties. They could be segregated in different social areas at school, say, lunch, gym, or recess. Sometimes after-school programs are not fully accessible to children with disabilities further isolating them from sharing in the extracurricular activities of their classmates.
Sometimes kids with disabilities may be more comfortable interacting with adults instead of with other kids. Sometimes kids may be nervous or curious about a kid with stuff like a wheelchair, walker, or screen reader. It’s not always easy to be friendly with someone who you do not understand. So, what do you do? I asked Debra Ruh, a Strategist and Marketing Influencer for the Community of Person with Disabilities and the Aging Market how I could help my friend. She had some great advice. She suggested:
Encourage your children to ask questions of their peers with disabilities; this helps them feel more welcomed and allows them to better understand and relate to their peers. Also, Parents of children with disabilities can also help break down some of the attitudinal, social, and informational barriers that interfere with the natural development of friendships with students with disabilities.
She said it can be useful to work with teachers and guidance counselors to help facilitate group activities that include students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers. Parents and teachers can provide educational opportunities for students to better understand different types of disabilities and their own unique abilities.
She also told me that there are a LOT more inclusive and empowering media, shows, TV, and movies with main characters that share some of the same disabilities as our children. These shows are normalizing disabilities and special needs. Bottom-line, we are humans first, and we all have abilities and will experience disabilities, at some point in our lives. We need to teach children to respect and appreciate those differences.
Here are a few examples:
Atypical: When a teen on the autism spectrum decides to get a girlfriend, his bid for more independence puts his whole family on a path
Speechless: Maya is the mom who will do anything for her husband, Jimmy, and kids Ray, Dylan, and JJ, her eldest son with cerebral palsy.
Born This Way: Honesty, humor, and heart are at the center of this original documentary series, which highlights the outgoing personalities and amazing abilities of seven young adults born with Down syndrome.
Switched At Birth: Daphne is a deaf teenager who finds out she went home with the wrong family as an infant. The show features other deaf and hard of hearing characters and even did one episode entirely in American Sign Language (ASL)
Watching some of these shows with your kids could make a difference in how they see others who might be different. Last, but not least, talk to your kid about how others might be different, but that everyone wants to have friends. Different isn’t bad—it’s just- DIFFERENT. At the next meet up, we did a game in which I was sure to include Michelle's kids in. Everyone joined in and I hope it helped her kids feel like part of the group. It's really important to teach your children to be kind and sensitive to how others feel in consequence to their words and actions. We all need a lot more kindness in the world.