Explaining Disability to Children

Growing up in Chicago and its north suburban areas in the 1950s and 60s, I have absolutely no recollection of ever seeing anyone in person, in television, or in movies who had a disability. In a way, it’s ironic that I ended up choosing a career as an occupational therapist which involved helping people who have disabilities, both visible and not.

The first real person I ever saw in a wheelchair was at dinner in my college dormitory when I was a freshman, and I was already enrolled in the occupational therapy undergraduate program at the time. (In a strange series of circumstances, she and I have become close friends since then.)

But in so many ways, we live in a very different world, especially in all of the civil rights legislation for people with disabilities as well as other populations that has evolved in the over four decades that I have been an OT.

About 20 years ago, I remember one of the younger members of the family asking a woman in a wheelchair who had an amputated leg, as the result of an infection, if her leg would grow back. What an interesting thing for a young child to ponder. After all, hair grows after being cut, as do finger nails and toe nails, and cuts and scrapes on the body turn into scabs and heal – so why would an amputated leg not grow back?

Last summer, I took my two oldest grandchildren who are in middle school to play mini-golf while they were here in town visiting me. I was trying to determine, while scoring, if they should be given a handicap to make our scores more equitable. My granddaughter quickly corrected me that I should have used the word “disability” not “handicap.” The conversation seemed to have no logical end to it as I tried to explain to her that the word “handicap” was being used in a completely different context when applied to a mini-golf score. (Now that she is older, we might need to re-visit that conversation!)

In a different discussion, I asked my grandchildren if they had any special needs kids in their classes at school. Their faces, with rolled eyes, showed me that they were thinking, “sure we have kids with disabilities at school, so what’s the big deal!”

So, I am wondering what experience, either personal or professional, other occupational therapy practitioners have had related to explaining disability to children.

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