Teaching children to be kind and accepting towards others is a goal most parents value highly. We want our children to know that surface differences are not barriers to good relationships. We want them to experience the qualities that make people more the same than different. Children with physical disabilities are especially likely to appear quite different, but are otherwise likely to share the same interests, strengths, and desires as their non-disabled peers. You can help your child nurture friendships with peers with physical disabilities using tips from Kendra Bennett, Claire Freeland, and Jacqueline Toner, authors of Yes I Can!: A Girl and Her Wheelchair published by Magination Press.

When a child with a physical disability is included in a classroom, it provides an opportunity for children with and without differences to socialize together. Perhaps even more importantly, it provides a life lesson in acceptance and inclusion. It offers a chance for children to learn about how to befriend peers who are different from themselves, to include them in play, and to become comfortable with people who have physical disabilities. Children may feel anxious or frightened when they see another child in a wheelchair or wearing braces on their legs. As a parent, you can help your child with their initial hesitation and sensitively guide them towards understanding in an honest and open way. Despite kind impulses to include a child with special needs in play, children may feel at a loss about how to make helpful accommodations. You can partner with the classroom teacher and the child’s parent to make suggestions that allow for inclusion.

The following tips will help you nurture your child’s friendships with peers who have physical disabilities:

  • Answer your child’s questions in a clear and reassuring manner. Your child may have worries about their own future well-being. They may wonder about “what happened” to their peer. Help your child identify similarities between themselves and their peer with a disability. Do they share interests? What are the many ways in which the other child is just like every other child?
  • Your child may have questions about how their peer copes with normal daily activities. Deal with this natural curiosity by answering in a matter of fact way. Expose your child to examples presented in the media, in books, and in real life of children and adults with disabilities who are successful socially, academically, and artistically.
  • Remind your child that all children have feelings. Help them to see that a child with a disability will feel as happy to have a kind friend as anyone would and would feel hurt and sad to be left out.
  • Think aloud with your child about ways that they can reach out to and include a peer who may need to do things in a slightly different way. Don’t be afraid to approach the parents of the child with special needs to ask how their child might be included in a birthday party or play date.

By supporting your child’s inclusion of a peer with a physical challenge you are helping them learn to be sensitive to other people more globally and communicating your own values of kindness and empathy.

This article is an excerpt from Magination Press book Yes I Can!: A Girl and Her Wheelchair, by Kendra Bennett, DPT, Claire Freeland, Ph.D, and Jacqueline Toner, PhD, authors of  published by Magination Press.

by Claire Freeland, Ph.D.

This Article's Author

Claire A. B. Freeland, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice, working for more than 35 years with youth and their families. With an interest in bringing psychological concepts to a wide audience, she has co-written several books for children and teens on subjects related to emotions and behavior. She lives with her husband in Baltimore, MD. They have two grown children.
by Jacqueline Toner, Ph.D

This Article's Author

Jacqueline B. Toner, PhD, is the co-author of a number of books for children and teens addressing social and emotional challenges. She practiced clinical psychology for over three decades serving children, teens, and families. Dr. Toner lives in Baltimore, MD, with her husband. They have three married daughters and two grandsons.
by Kendra Barrett, DPT

This Article's Author

Kendra J. Barrett, DPT, is a pediatric physical therapist who has worked in early intervention and public schools for eight years since graduating from Ithaca College with a doctorate in physical therapy. She currently works in a public school for students age 3–21 with intellectual and physical disabilities. Dr. Barrett lives in Towson, MD, with her husband and her son.

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