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Including everyone: Approaching and befriending kids in wheelchairs

September 18, 2019

Children are often curious when encountering a child in the community who uses a wheelchair, scooter or other assistive equipment. They frequently ask questions directly in front of the other child which can make many adults feel uncomfortable and embarrassed.   

It’s important to remember that while you can’t always control what a child may do or say, your example and actions can shape how they may approach these situations. With this in mind, here are some suggestions to help your child turn their curiosity into friendship.

Be matter-of-fact. It’s not uncommon for parents to try to brush off their child’s comments or questions to avoid hurting the feelings of the child in the wheelchair. However, this approach only leads to separate the children. Instead, when the question “Why is he in a wheelchair” is asked, offer the explanation that maybe the child’s legs don’t work the same way their legs do and they need the chair to move around. Then share some of the relatable things the equipment allows them to do – like move from one place to another so they can play. 

Avoid making assumptions and offering explanations about why the child uses the chair such as they were hurt, their leg is ‘broken’ or they don’t know how to walk. Providing a simple, matter-of-fact response about the equipment and how it helps will explain the situation without offending the other child.

Focus on similarities. Children are quick to point out when others have visible differences. When a child questions another child’s use of a wheelchair, it’s OK to explain that, “Yes, that’s different from how you move,” but then encourage a conversation between the children about what’s the same about them. Maybe both children like to paint, listen to music, play video games or search for bugs. Maybe they have the same favorite color or both like ice cream. Finding their similarities will help them to relate to each other.  

Teach respect for differences. Teach your child about being sensitive to our differences; this will help them to be respectful of others who are different from themselves. Being respectful of someone with a difference means recognizing they do something differently, but that just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong: “Sam may need a wheelchair to help with moving around, but he can still play basketball or soccer, just in a little different way.”

Serve as an example for your child. Always let your actions and words be a positive example of being open and accepting.

  • Smile at others, greet those you encounter around your neighborhood and show kindness when interacting. These concepts seem like common sense, but with our busy lives, we sometimes avoid these interactions.
  • Discourage behaviors such as pointing and staring. Talk with your child about how this can make someone feel uncomfortable. If your child is curious and has a question, help them approach the other child directly to ask the question, rather than talking about the other child within earshot. 
  • Demonstrate how to start a conversation (a great skill for life!). Introducing yourself and your child is the first step when approaching another child in a wheelchair, or really when approaching any potential new friend. Then, shining a light on something the two children have in common can help break the ice: “I see your wheelchair is pink, that’s Sara’s favorite color too.” These strategies can help the two children warm-up to each other and usually will lead to more conversation and, most important of all, new friendships. 

Don’t discourage questions. Allow your child to ask questions of a person who uses a wheelchair. Children in wheelchairs and their parents are usually happy to answer questions and chat with other kids who want to get to know about them. Although this may feel awkward for us, as we don’t want to offend the other child or parent, encouraging open conversation can lead to acceptance and understanding.

As parents, it’s important to teach our children how to converse with children of all different backgrounds and abilities. Encouraging them to be sensitive to others and friendly and open to conversation will provide experiences that allow children to understand that we are all unique, and yet very similar at the same time, and that we all have a lot to offer to each other. As the famous Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood once said: "As different as we are from one another, as unique as each one of us is, we are much more the same than we are different. That may be the most essential message of all, as we help our children grow toward being caring, compassionate and charitable adults."  

by Katie Bobbitt, occupational therapist, and Mandy Butler, physical therapist

“Including everyone” is a series of articles dedicated to supporting the wonderful kids we work with. Our hope is that this series helps parents feel more comfortable and confident addressing questions from their child about special needs or special equipment, opening the door to conversations, awareness and many new friendships. The first article in the series, Start with a smile and say hello, focuses on specialized communication devices and how different (and similar) the conversation process may be when this equipment is involved.

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